Chapter 1: An Intriguing Proposal

It was the first day of the Spring Term at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry, so the message summoning Harry Potter, along with his friends Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley, to Professor Dumbledore's study was quite unexpected.

"We can't be in trouble already!" Hermione whispered, as they followed Professor McGonagall along the corridor. "A whole term has gone by, and there hasn't been a single mysterious happening--or anything!"

"I know," muttered Ron in reply. "I was starting to think that Harry'd lost his touch!"

Professor McGonagall, whom Harry always suspected had unnaturally sharp ears, made a sound that might have been a cough or a suppressed laugh.

Truth be told, Harry had enjoyed the uneventful Winter Term. His summer had been very emotional. He stayed at the Dursleys' only long enough to ensure his safety. Then, a determined Molly Weasley descended upon Privet Drive and (Harry could think of no other word for it) bullied the Dursleys into letting her take Harry back to The Burrow.

There, in the centre of the warm, loving chaos that was the Weasley family, Harry finally had a chance to grieve for his dead godfather, Sirius Black. In the midst of so much genuine affection, Harry's brittle reserve snapped. Late one sultry night, as he was sitting alone in the living room, brooding, Molly came in quietly and sat beside him. Gently, but quite irresistibly, she drew him into her arms and pulled his head onto her shoulder.

The floodgates opened; Harry wept as he had not wept since the day he realised that tears encouraged Dudley's abuse. When the storm passed, Harry felt light, clean and tired. Molly released him. He looked at her and breathed, "Thanks, Mum."

"I'm not your Mum, Harry!" she replied with a nervous, little laugh.

"If you're not, who is?" Harry asked quietly, before he kissed her on the cheek and went to bed.

Dumbledore visited The Burrow during the summer. Harry tried to apologise for his behaviour at their last meeting, feeling forgiven by the time Dumbledore left. Other friends came and went, offering solace. A completely unexpected moment occurred one morning when Hedwig delivered a small envelope containing a tasteful, rather formal but oddly sincere, note of condolence signed 'Severus Snape'. Harry sensed, finally, that he belonged.

Strangest of all the summer's events was something he was not sure had actually happened. On a drowsy summer afternoon, Harry fell into an uneasy doze while lying on a grassy bank near the house. Somewhere in the twilight between sleeping and waking, he was troubled by formless terrors. Then, he heard a soft voice, smelled honeysuckle and sunshine, and jerked awake to find his head resting on Ginny Weasley's lap. He tried to speak, to move, but she shushed him and smoothed his hair. He drifted back into a dreamless sleep. When he woke again, she was gone; neither of them spoke about that day, afterwards.

Slowly, Harry healed. He would always miss Sirius, always regret the things they had never said or done together, but the wound was no longer raw.

Back at Hogwarts for his Sixth Year, Harry found himself surrounded by more respect and friendship than he had ever known. Friendships begun as children were being cemented among young adults.

There had been only three big surprises that first term. One had been his inclusion in Professor Snape's Advanced Potions class. Snape, while not exactly friendly to Harry, had modified his attitude; his comments were still pointed, but no longer barbed or steeped in venom.

The second shock should not, Harry felt, have been that much of a surprise. Coming back from the Hallowe'en Feast, about half of Gryffindor House had caught Hermione and Ron kissing passionately in the Common Room. This outcome had been in the cards since the day an 11-year-old Hermione had run crying into the toilets because Ron had been unkind to her. They still bickered constantly, and when Harry asked why, Hermione gave him an impish grin, saying, "Because it's so much fun making up afterwards!" Ron and Hermione walked hand-in-hand, even when arguing. They kissed in empty classrooms and quiet corners while everyone thought--finally! Harry developed an instinct for knowing when they wanted him around (which was most of the time), and when to leave them alone.

The third surprise was the number of girls who were suddenly showing a personal interest in Harry. He had grown, of course, filled out a little and, though he would never be the giant Ron had become, he was as lithe and wiry as a panther. The only time Harry ever looked in a mirror was on the increasingly frequent occasions when he needed to shave, or when he attempted to bring order to his unruly mane of jet-black hair. His image in the mirror seemed unremarkable.

Girls, apparently, saw something more. He caught Cho Chang watching him with regret on her face. Lavender Brown had become flirtatious and giggly around him. Girls he had hardly, or never, spoken to seemed determined to engage him in conversation.

Meanwhile, conjecture in the Wizarding world was that, after his failure at the Ministry of Magic, Lord Voldemort had gone to ground and might well be regrouping his forces. Editorials appeared in the Daily Prophet urging all and sundry not to drop their guard - Constant Vigilance! was becoming something of a watchword. But, whatever was happening elsewhere, Hogwarts was quiet, no missing artefacts, no mysterious disappearances or suspicious characters, no crises of any kind. For the first time since he had come to school here, Harry spent an entire term without sneaking around the castle at night; the Invisibility Cloak and Marauders' Map gathered dust at the bottom of his trunk.

Now, Professor McGonagall was ushering them into Professor Dumbledore's office. Something was up. The Headmaster sat behind his desk, staring intently at a device in front of him, muttering gently to himself.

Hermione jabbed Harry hard in the ribs. "That's a laptop computer!" she hissed.

"Indeed it is, Miss Granger." Dumbledore looked up at them over his glasses. "My new toy. It was given me by a colleague whom I hope you will all soon meet."

"Excuse me, Professor," said Ron, "but Dad and Hermione have both told me that all that Muggle el-ec-tron-ic stuff wouldn't work where there's too much magic about."

"That is true, in most cases, Mr Weasley. My friend informs me that this particular device is, er, hardened against electro-magnetic pulse attack--whatever that may mean in terms of Muggle science. In practice, it means that I am able to use this remarkable device for a number of purposes.

"Now, do sit down, all three of you. I suppose I had better begin with some history. You may have noticed during your time here that, while we have regular dealings with Wizards and Witches throughout Europe and the Old World, there is a singular and profound silence from our colleagues in the United States?"

Hermione frowned. "I'd wondered about that. Surely it's not possible that all Americans are Muggles?"

"There is no nation on earth completely composed of Muggles, Miss Granger. But, the wizards and witches of America keep themselves very quiet, blend in with the Muggle world and, in many cases, deny their heritage so they can live their lives as Muggles.

"This was not always the case, of course. In the sixteenth century, a school of witchcraft and wizardry was established in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, near a village called Salem. You know something about this, Harry?"

Harry's eyes had widened at the mention of Salem. He nodded. "Yes, Professor. My aunt and uncle rarely let me watch TV, but, about a year before I came here, they made me watch a documentary about a witch-hunt in America--the place was called Salem. I don't remember too much about it, but there were some trials, and some people were executed or put in prison. When the programme was over, my uncle said to me, 'Let that be a warning!' I didn't know why, then. I just thought he was being nasty."

"Mmm," murmured Dumbledore. "Yes, Muggles give varying explanations for the events, ranging from youthful mischief to tangled love intrigues to local politics. Whatever the truth of the matter, the magical community was disturbed by the hostility shown towards magic and those who were thought to use it.

"The wizards and witches of the American colonies decided then and there that they could not risk any kind of exposure. As a result, the wizarding community in the United States is loose in its organisation. I believe the Salem Academy is still active, though only a very few children, from the oldest wizarding families, go there, and it is heavily protected by concealing spells. Many other families send their children to Muggle schools but train them in magic at home. No attempt is made to contact Muggle-borns, such as Miss Granger here. There is no equivalent of our Ministry of Magic--just a man in New York, named Stephen Strange, to whom any American wizard or witch can turn for help.

"Of course, you're wondering what this has to do with you. It appears that there is a third community of humans, neither Wizard nor Muggle, of which we have been unaware. They call themselves 'Mutants'. I have recently been contacted by the Principal of a school whose pupils are, even by Wizarding standards, quite extraordinary. This gentleman, a Professor Charles Xavier, suggested to me that both our schools might benefit from what he described as a 'student exchange programme', whereby some of his pupils come to Hogwarts, and some of ours go there for a term. I must admit I found the idea quite fascinating, and so agreed to the experiment. It only remained to choose suitable students.

"After some deliberation, it struck me that you three exemplify the best characteristics of Hogwarts. I might also add that, in a strange land far from home, a firm friendship such as you have established would be a source of great support. So, I ask you, are you interested in going?"

Professor Dumbledore leaned back. "You need not rush into a decision. If you let me know by Thursday, we can arrange for you to travel on Saturday. Go. Talk among yourselves, and consult with your families. You are excused from classes for the rest of today."

As the three young people left the room, Dumbledore settled further into his chair and said, without looking round, "You still have doubts, Minerva?"

"Yes, Albus. Not about Charles Xavier and his students, but about your decision. Why these three, especially Potter?"

"I do believe you have grown fond of the boy, Minerva. We do not know what Voldemort may be planning, though we do know that it will be aimed at Harry, the boy who has defied and escaped him five times already! So, I will send Harry three thousand miles away, to a place whose exact location only I know. I will send with him his best and most loyal friends. Finally, I will put him in the care of a group of good, kind people who have abilities as powerful as any spell or curse. How much safer can I make him?"

At Charles Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, 16-year-old Marie D'Ancanto--"Rogue" to her friends--walked down the corridor arm-in-arm with her boyfriend, Bobby Drake, enjoying the bustle that was an ordinary morning at an extraordinary establishment. Xavier's was not, as most people thought, an exclusive prep school for academic high achievers, funded by a charitable trust. This school was something else entirely. The students and staff of Xavier's were, one and all, mutants; they were born with a genetic difference that gave them abilities beyond those of ordinary humans.

Rogue, could you come to my office, please?

She heard the 'voice' not with her ears, but inside her head. It was a kindly and familiar voice, that of the school's founder and principal, Professor Charles Xavier. Xavier, himself a mutant telepath, had dedicated his life and fortune to helping mutants and non-mutants live together in peace. Ironically, this decision had brought Xavier into conflict, not only with the prejudices of the ignorant, but with other mutants whose ideology was different--a conflict in which Rogue had played a significant part.

She turned to Bobby just as he turned to her. "I have to go..."

"...to Professor X's office," Bobby finished.

Rogue giggled. They had spoken simultaneously, and it sounded so silly. Bobby laughed, too, a warm laugh. Rogue loved him for his warmth above all else; it expressed itself in his eyes, his voice, and his body language, so much so that those unaware of Bobby's unique abilities were always puzzled by his nickname, "Iceman".

"Both of us," he said. "Wonder what's up?"

"Let's go find out."

As they drew near the Professor's wood-paneled door, a towering figure came toward them from the opposite direction. This was Peter Rasputin, a brawny farm boy of Russian extraction, who was one of their closest friends. Rogue grinned at him--she always felt that Peter was too shy and unsure of himself--so she did her best to make him part of things.

"Hey, big guy!" she said.

The 17-year-old smiled down at them from the six-foot-eight height that was only one of the reasons why they called him "Colossus".

"You, too? Are we in more trouble, do you think?" he asked.

"We won't find out by standing here," said Rogue. She raised her hand to tap on the door, just as the professor's voice called, "Come!"

"I hate it when he does that!" muttered Rogue, as she pushed the door open and led the trio in.

Almost all the staff were there, she noticed. The professor was behind his desk, smiling benignly at them. Near him stood Scott Summers, tall, straight and alert, darkly handsome but looking older than his 24 years.

Rogue felt a pang as she looked at Scott. It had been only a few months since the love of his life, Jean Grey, had sacrificed herself to save them all. Rogue remembered the freezing waters of Alkali Lake bursting through a shattered dam, sweeping toward their crippled aircraft. Jean went outside, alone. Calling on reserves of telekinetic power no one knew she possessed, she simultaneously held back the raging torrent and recharged the plane's power plant. Then, as the aircraft pulled itself away, Jean simply let go, while the waters crashed over her. Rogue could still hear Scott's hopeless, raging sobs and the rough voice of Logan as he held the younger man close. "She's gone...she's gone," Logan said, over, and over, again. Ororo wept, as she tried to pilot the plane amid the murmur of Kurt's soft prayers.

Since then, Scott had gone through some bad times. There had been long talks with Professor X. There had been that strange fight with Logan just weeks ago--Scott pounding on the smaller man with his fists, alternately yelling and crying. Miraculously, Scott restrained the lethal power of the energy beams that blasted from his eyes. Logan simply stood there, never raising a hand or using his feral speed and agility. Rogue expected him to extend the razor-sharp, unbreakable, metal claws concealed in the backs of his hands, but he relied on his native toughness and mutant healing ability to absorb the attacks, as if he were absorbing Scott's pain in some way. When Scott finally exhausted himself, he collapsed into Logan's arms. Logan held him for a moment and said, "I told you before. It was her decision, and she chose you. Neither of us could have saved her. That was her decision, too."

Then, Ororo had appeared from the shadows and Logan handed the still-crying Scott over to her. She led him away, her arm around his shoulders.

Shocked to see tears gleaming in Logan's dark eyes, Rogue had tried to go to him. He waved her away, not angrily, but firmly. Since then, Logan and Scott had been, if not friends, no longer rivals; the mutual respect once masked by Scott's jealousy had begun to surface.

Rogue felt a kinship with both these men. Logan was a mentor, a father figure, someone who almost sacrificed his own life for hers, transferring his healing abilities into her body when she was overcome by a twisted mutant's attack. Scott was more like a brother, still struggling against his own destructive powers. Due to a brain lesion sustained in childhood, the only way he could restrain his eye-beams was by constantly wearing a ruby-quartz visor to keep them in check. Until recently, Rogue had had no control over the way her slightest touch to someone else's skin would drain that person of their memories, skills and powers, leaving them comatose while she drowned in a flood of unwanted perceptions and emotions.

She had begun to learn control, slowly. She could gently kiss Bobby, now, without draining his astonishing ability to pull the heat from anything, rendering it icy cold. She could let him touch her cheek, or stroke her hair, as long as he didn't do so unexpectedly. With care and a moment to prepare, she could kiss him more deeply with only minimal effects. She made no attempt to hide the truth from Professor X (it would have been pointless, anyway) that her deepening love for Bobby, and his for her, was making this possible.

Rogue shook herself out of her reverie to look around Professor Xavier's office. Logan was sitting as he always did, on a chair turned backwards so that his folded arms rested on the chair back. He nodded at her. Ororo, the elemental mutant they called 'Storm', was standing by the window, tall, lovely and serious as ever. The two newest members of staff had taken up positions along a wall. The gargoyle figure of Kurt Wagner was perched on the sideboard (a habit the professor so far had been unable to cure), with the usual mischievous grin on his blue-skinned face. Genial Irishman Sean Cassidy stood relaxed nearby, his briar pipe conspiring with Logan's cigar to cover the room in a grey haze.

"Come in, all of you, and sit down. No, you are not in any trouble, though I dare say it is only a matter of time." Professor Xavier smiled, and waved them to comfortable chairs. "I think I had better start by giving you necessary background concerning what I am about to propose.

"Some months ago, I was scanning with Cerebro..." Xavier paused, studying the assembled group. "You are all, I believe, aware that I use the telepathically controlled supercomputer to track mutant activity worldwide?" His listeners nodded. Xavier continued. "That day I was searching for unidentified mutants. Instead, I became aware of non-mutant individuals who produced strong, unusual readings on Cerebro. I had seen such readings before. Here, in America, similar signals are quite widely scattered and fairly weak. However, I was scanning the British Isles at the time, and was struck by several large concentrations of extremely powerful scan results.

"Over the next few days, I recalibrated Cerebro to obtain a more exact reading, and decided to focus specifically on a remote area in the Scottish Highlands. I found nearly one thousand closely-grouped signals from individuals ranging in age from eleven to eighteen as well as, perhaps, twenty adults."

Peter Rasputin whistled. "That sounds like a school, Professor."

"Your deductive abilities do you credit. It is, indeed, a school, one even more unusual than this. By using Cerebro to boost my telepathy, I was able to make contact with the headmaster of this school, a Professor Albus Dumbledore. After some understandable initial caution, we began to correspond.

"Professor Dumbledore runs what is, in effect, a school for young witches and wizards. Yes, you may smile, but I would point out that each of you displays abilities that earlier generations would have called witchcraft.

"It seems that there are certain humans who possess, in a greater or lesser degree, an ability to manipulate the world around them in defiance of probability and the laws of physics. These people have lived among normal humans--they call them 'Muggles', a word I am unable to discover the root of--for millennia. They live among them, but apart, and their two worlds seldom, if ever, interact. They have their own laws, leaders, schools, shops, and ways of doing things. Many of them are as ignorant of the normal world as ordinary humans are of the magical one."

Professor Xavier stared intently at his three students. "As you know, my hope is for mutants and humans to live together in peace. Recent events, however, have led me to wonder if that is a naïve dream. What if there were an alternative? What if we could live, as these wizards do, among humans, but apart from them, our presence unknown and, therefore, not perceived as threatening?

"Our first goal must always be understanding. We understand best by sharing. Professor Dumbledore is as curious about mutants as I am about wizards, so we have discussed an arrangement. How would you three like to become our first exchange students?"

Chapter 2--Mayhem at the Mall

The following Saturday, Harry, Hermione and Ron arrived at Xavier's with their luggage, transported by portkey into a large, sunny office. They had time to exchange brief greetings with their counterparts, a striking girl with a streak of pure white in her long, brown hair, a cheerful-looking young man the same size and build as Harry, and a towering, muscular youth even bigger than Ron. Then, the three Americans took their places around the portkey and vanished.

"Come in, come in! Sit down, all three of you," a man welcomed them. "That must be quite a disconcerting way to travel," he mused. "Now then, you are Hermione, Harry, and Ron, yes? Good. I am Professor Charles Xavier, principal of this school."

Professor Xavier was a slender, wheelchair-bound man of indeterminate age, somewhere between forty and sixty years old, Harry guessed. The professor was completely bald, with a strong, kindly face and penetrating, dark eyes.

He spoke again. "Before I let you unpack, I thought I had better tell you how we've set things up. Harry and Ron will be sharing the room normally occupied by Bobby and Peter, the two boys who have gone to Hogwarts. Hermione, you will be sharing with Marie's roommate, Kitty Pryde. I think you two will get along well but, if not, we can arrange a change.

"You may explore the mansion and grounds as you choose, providing you respect other students' personal space. Certain areas are off limits to students unless accompanied by faculty, but these are clearly marked and kept locked. I must also ask you to stay within the school grounds unless escorted. You will be expected to attend classes, but we'll discuss your courses on Monday. Professor Dumbledore has advised me that you have been given Hogwarts' work to do while you are here, as well.

"Two members of my staff will show you to your rooms in a moment. First, I would like to introduce Ms. Ororo Monroe, also known as 'Storm'."

Storm was maybe twenty, the same height as Harry, about 5'10", and quite the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. The severely cut business suit she wore completely failed to disguise her superb figure. Storm's face was almost perfect, with classic bone structure, flawless coffee-coloured skin, a generous mouth, and liquid, chocolate eyes. Her hair was shoulder length, thick, and silver-white like a Veela's. She took Harry's proffered hand in both of hers, squeezed it warmly, and spoke his name in a soft, slightly husky, contralto. She moved on to greet the others in the same fashion.

"And, this is my deputy, Mr. Scott Summers, also called 'Cyclops'."

Cyclops stood a shade over six feet tall, with a slim but powerful build. Unlike Storm, he was casually dressed in jeans and a sweater. He had dark hair, a strong jaw and firm mouth. He seemed to have an air of sadness about him.

Cyclops' most striking feature was a heavy visor with an eye slit made from some kind of reddish glass or crystal. The visor obscured his eyes and the upper part of his face. Cyclops greeted them with a hearty, brisk handshake.

Professor Xavier continued, "Should you have any problems, I am usually to be found in this office during the school day unless I am teaching. My door is always open; feel free to come and speak to me about anything.

"Finally, welcome to Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters. We hope to make your stay here an enjoyable learning experience. Now, off you go to get settled in."

The three of them began to pick up their luggage. Scott pointed at the brooms Harry and Ron had insisted on bringing. "Planning to do some cleaning, guys?"

"These aren't for sweeping," Harry said indignantly, picking up his Firebolt. "They're for flying!"

Scott grinned. For a moment, the sadness left him and his natural enthusiasm emerged. "Now, that, I gotta see!"

Kitty Pryde, an auburn-haired sixteen year old, was in the Quiet Lounge, absorbed in a battered paperback copy of The Fellowship of the Ring, when her friend, Dani, hissed to her, "Newbies at 11 o'clock! Cute newbies, too!"

Kitty looked up. Storm and Cyclops were escorting two boys and a girl along the corridor. Cyclops had stopped by the door and was saying, "This is the Quiet Lounge. Students come here to read, play board games, or just hang out. There's no TV or video gaming allowed in here, and we keep the music turned down."

Kitty focused on the girl in the group. So this was her new roomie--a small brunette, fairly good looking, who could use a makeover. But, then, Kitty thought, nearly everyone could use a makeover other than Ororo. The redheaded guy was the brunette's boyfriend, judging from the body language between them. Kitty decided he wasn't too much bigger than a grizzly bear. The other guy… hmm. The other guy captured Kitty's complete attention. She studied his slender, dancer's body, even features, mop of unruly, black hair and, finally, the emerald-green eyes. That one was hot!

Dani elbowed her, muttering, "Kitty, put your tongue back in your mouth before someone steps on it! These must be the guys from England Professor X told us about. Should we say hi?"

"I'm on it, Dani. Gotta meet my new roommate, anyway. Later!"

It didn't take Kitty long to persuade Storm to let her show Hermione to their room, which was spacious, airy and warm despite the wintry scene outside the window. Kitty showed Hermione where to store her things, then sat on the edge of her own bed and began a conversation that jumped around like a grasshopper on a hot plate.

"That big redhead-- Ron--he's your boyfriend, right?"

"Oh, yes!" Hermione still could not believe her luck.

"Cool. He's a hunk," said Kitty, then switched tracks. "Rogue--Marie, that is-- said Professor X told her your school is like a real castle, with battlements, suits of armor, and everything."

"That's right," Hermione agreed. "We even have ghosts."

"Really? You ever see one?"

Hermione was about to say "every day" when she realised that Kitty probably would not believe her or would end up thinking that she was, as Ron would say, "completely, bloody mental." So, Hermione just shrugged. Kitty had jumped ahead, anyway.

"Your other friend--does he have a girlfriend back home?"

"Harry? No, he hasn't."

"You're kidding me, right? A cute guy like him?"

Hermione experienced a mental hiccup. Harry--a 'cute guy'? Hermione adored Harry: he was her best friend, but 'cute'? She almost laughed aloud as she pictured the skinny, pinch-faced eleven year old who had first befriended her all those years ago. She must try to see him as other girls did.

She shook her head at Kitty. "Harry's been through a lot. His life is a bit…complicated. To be honest, I think there are girls at home who fancy him, but he doesn't seem to notice them. Harry can be very dense, sometimes," Hermione revealed.

Kitty filed that info away for future reference. With a carefully neutral expression on her face, she changed the subject once more, chattering about the school. Hermione wasn't fooled for an instant, but she let the other girl carry on.

After Hermione finished unpacking, she and Kitty collected Ron and Harry from a room halfway down another corridor. They went back to the Quiet Lounge. Hermione noticed with amusement that Kitty managed to walk beside Harry along the way, and sat him down beside her on the couch. Kitty introduced the newcomers to her circle of friends, saying, "We're the only kids our age in the school right now, so you're going to be hanging with us. Professor X would kill us if we ignored you. Besides, it'll be more fun if we all get along."

Kitty's closest friend after the absent Marie was a pretty, Native American girl named Danielle Moonstar. Dani's boyfriend was Roberto DaCosta, a fiery but good-humored Brazilian, whose roommate and best friend was Sam Guthrie, a gangly, soft-spoken sixteen year old from Kentucky. Sam was going out with Dani's roommate, Rahne Sinclaire, a shy Scots girl with hair as red as Ron's.

The young mutants bombarded the three young wizards with questions about Hogwarts and England and magic. In return, they offered a good deal of information about Xavier's, America, and their lives as mutants.

The Xavier's crowd was curious about the new arrivals' powers. Harry, Ron and Hermione demonstrated a few basic spells, just to show that they were, in Roberto's words, "on the level". Roberto responded with a show of the immense physical strength he could achieve by drawing on the energy of the sun, which explained his nickname, 'Sunspot.' Rahne transformed into a red-furred wolf, revealing her Wolfsbane form, before Danielle, as Psyche, got them all laughing when she caught out both Sam and Ron with an illusion of a table groaning with food. Sam regretted that his talent, flying like a rocket, was too dangerous to display indoors—they didn't call him Cannonball for nothing! Kitty could dissolve like a spirit; she showed her Ariel skills by walking right through the wall.

They marvelled and laughed. After dinner, the students watched TV together. But, as the evening went on, couples slipped out for some private time--Dani and Roberto first, then Sam and Rahne, finally Ron and Hermione. This left Kitty and Harry sitting together alone.

They did more talking than TV watching as they studied each other. Kitty realized there was more to Harry than good looks. Harry was drawn to Kitty's intelligence and warmth, as well as her delicate features and slender figure. He felt something stirring inside him.

When, an hour or so later, Dani stuck her head in the door to inform them that everyone else was turning in for the night, Kitty walked with Harry as far as the landing where the boys' and girls' corridors separated. There, she turned to him and said, "Good night, Harry. Welcome to Xavier's." On an impulse, she stepped closer and gave him a quick hug. To her delight, he returned the hug. They parted company, both with hearts beating a little faster.

On Sunday morning after breakfast, the three friends followed the advice Kitty had given them to dress warmly. They passed through the empty recreation room, out the French doors, and onto a wide veranda that ran the length of the house on that side.

The day was crisp and bright. The veranda overlooked a busy scene. To one side was a basketball court, where students were playing a game. Sam Guthrie had a group of younger children (they looked like Hogwarts First Years to Harry) tossing a frisbee back and forth in the middle area. Finally, there was a small, but well-equipped skate park, complete with ramps, rails, a half-pipe--and Roberto, whizzing around happily. Arranged along the veranda were benches and tables.

No sooner had Hermione finished explaining frisbees and skateboards to Ron (she didn't even try to tackle basketball) than Kitty dashed over to invite Hermione to join her, Dani and Rahne in a game of pingpong. Ron wandered to the edge of the lawn just as a little girl missed a catch and the frisbee sailed in his direction. Ron caught the thing without thinking and was promptly drawn into that game.

Harry took a deep breath of clean, cold air and was about to find a seat, when Roberto appeared at his elbow. "Hey, Harry, you ever try one of these?" he asked.

Harry looked at the skateboard. Dudley had one once, but quickly broke it. Harry shook his head. "'fraid not."

"Piece of cake. You've got the build for boarding. C'mon, I'll show you. You might spend more time on your butt than on the board at first, but don't sweat it. Let's get you a helmet," Roberto said.

The morning passed pleasantly for Harry. He learned quickly under Roberto's patient instruction. Boarding, like Quidditch, depended on balance. Harry took to it easily, though he felt strangely unsettled as the day wore on, just as he had the previous evening.

After a while, he and Roberto left the skate park to rejoin the others on the lawn. The younger children had gone indoors, replaced by the girls, who'd decided to try their hands at frisbee. As Harry tossed and caught the plastic disc, laughed at Ron's clowning and at Dani's wisecracks, he found himself flirting happily with Kitty. But, again, he felt that odd sensation, like a shifting inside.

His vague uneasiness crystallised into understanding. Harry suddenly became aware that, in this place, he was no longer Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived, nemesis of Lord Voldemort, child of prophecy--and goodness knows what else. Here and now, he was just Harry, a student from England, someone to find out about and be friends with…maybe more than friends, he thought hopefully, catching Kitty watching him. He felt as if a weight that he hadn't realised he'd been carrying had fallen from his shoulders.

By the time the lunch bell rang, everyone was more than ready for a meal. Harry naturally fell into step beside Kitty, and sat with her without really thinking about it. Hermione noticed, though, and when she caught Dani's eye, the Native American girl solemnly winked at her, so Hermione knew she wasn't the only one.

The conversation topic for lunch was quickly decided. Roberto and Sam planted themselves down opposite Harry and Ron. Sam said, "Ok, guys. So, tell us all about this Quidditch thing!"

Hermione rolled her eyes and groaned theatrically. Kitty leaned forward and spoke to her across Harry and Ron. "That bad, Hermione?"

"You have no idea, Kitty! This could take the rest of the week!"

The rest of the week was, in fact, taken up with classes of one sort or another. The three visitors quickly discovered their own favorites. Hermione enjoyed Storm's math class ("You've always been completely mental!" Ron teased) while Ron was intrigued by science, particularly because the subject was taught by the blue-furred and massively muscled Henry McCoy.

Harry most enjoyed philosophy classes. The teacher, Mr. Wagner, looked like a demon from an old painting, with his blue skin, yellow eyes, pointed ears and long, whip-like tail, but he taught his subject with a blend of deep spirituality and wry humor that Harry found fascinating. They all enjoyed Professor Xavier's English literature lessons, and world history, which was taught by Mr. Cassidy. The Hogwarts trio had yet to learn why the easy-going Mr. Cassidy was called Banshee.

One teacher they rarely saw was Logan. ("Not Mr. Logan," Sam warned them, "just Logan".) He took the young mutants for what they called 'Danger Room sessions', the only lessons the three Hogwarts students were denied.

Logan was short, no taller than Kitty, but wide-shouldered and heavily built. His hair was thick, coarse and dark; his face, weathered and craggy. He had spoken to the Hogwarts students only once, approaching them in the Rec Room on Monday evening.

"Evenin'. The name's Logan—Wolverine, to some. Just so you know, I told the Professor that you should be in my Danger Room sessions with the others. I've seen the files Dumbledore sent over. You've done pretty well, but, with some training, you could've done better."

Nettled, Harry responded, "Oh? So you think you could have dealt with a Basilisk, do you?"

Logan shook his head. "No, bub, I don't think so, I know so!"

He raised one hand and clenched his fist. There was a metallic clicking sound, and three curved, razor-sharp blades sprang out from the back of his hand. Wolverine moved them around in the light for a moment, then retracted his claws.

Harry grinned ruefully. "OK, I believe you! Next time I find a monster on the loose, I'll give you a call!"

Wolverine looked at him for a long moment, then chuckled. "You'll do, kid." He addressed all three students. "I still think you should be in my classes."

The week passed quickly, and Harry, Hermione and Ron found themselves part of a new circle of friends. They studied together, ate together, spent free time together and quickly became a tightly knit group.

Harry was growing especially fond of Kitty. In the evenings, when the other couples had drifted off, he would sit with her in the Quiet Lounge, talking. The conversations became more intimate, as they shared their dreams, hopes and fears, and spoke of their childhoods. Something was growing between them, but they felt relaxed and comfortable together; neither was willing to rush things.

The next Saturday marked the first time the three visitors had left the mansion or grounds. That morning, Scott drove all of them into the local town in what he called an MPV – Hermione called it a 'people mover' – and dropped them off at the shopping mall. This was apparently a regular outing for older students at Xavier's, rather like the Hogsmeade weekends Harry and his friends enjoyed so much.

No sooner had Scott left, than the girls whisked Hermione away to some sanctum of feminine mysteries. The boys hit the video arcade, except for Ron, who disappeared into a jewelry store, returning after an hour, looking pleased with himself.

Dani came into the arcade later and hauled the boys out. Harry almost didn't recognise Hermione. Remarkable things had been done with her hair, nails and makeup. She was lovely, and Ron told her so.

"Aw, man! Show some cool!" muttered Roberto in a pained voice. But Ron knew his woman. Hermione glowed.

Then, Ron showed her what he had spent an hour choosing: two small pendants, each shaped like half of a heart, engraved with an affectionate verse. One had a long, thick chain suitable for Ron's neck, while the other was shorter and more delicate, intended for Hermione. Hermione seemed delighted. "Ron, they're perfect! Just what we need!" Harry privately thought the things were decidedly tacky, but kept his opinion to himself, as his friends were clearly happy with them.

There was coffee at Starbucks, then some window shopping, followed by lunch at an all-you-can-eat buffet where Ron and Sam did some serious damage to that day's profit margin. Next, they went to a multiplex theatre to see a film called Star Wars, which was a classic, Harry was told. It was loud, colourful, had a tissue-thin plot in which the characters seemed to spend most of their time running away, but Harry thought it was great fun to watch. Afterward, they stopped for cokes and ice cream. Finally, they made their way to what the Americans called the 'parking lot', to catch their ride back to Xavier's.

As they were standing and chatting, they heard a roar of machinery. A brilliant white light fixed on them. An amplified voice called out, "ATTENTION, MUTANTS! STAY WHERE YOU ARE!" Suddenly, the parking lot was full of armed men dressed in blue bodysuits with facemasks.

The students retreated to the entryway and crouched behind waist-high walls. "Damn!" hissed Dani, "Hellfire Club mercs. What do we do, Ariel?"

"We call for backup." Kitty pulled a device out of her jacket, thumbed a button and spoke urgently, "Ariel to Cyclops. We have a situation in the parking lot--Hellfire mercs."

Scott's voice, surprisingly clear, came out of the communicator. "Understood. On our way. Hold them off, if you can. Cyclops out."

"ATTENTION, MUTANTS! COME FORWARD ONE BY ONE. SURRENDER AND YOU WON'T GET HURT!"

Kitty turned to Harry, expecting him and the others to be shocked, but she saw he was appraising the situation just as she was. For a moment, he reminded her of Scott, poised and in control, and she remembered some of the things he had told her about his past. He had been in battles before. Still…

"Harry!" she said, "Get Ron and Hermione inside. The mercs aren't interested in you. It's us they want!"

"We're supposed to just stand here, and let them take you?" Harry snorted, pulling out his wand.

"Not bloody likely!" Hermione said, in a steely tone Kitty had never heard her use before.

"What kind of friends do you think we are?" Ron asked hotly.

"The best kind, looks like," murmured Sam.

"But, Professor X said we were to keep you safe!" Kitty protested.

"Ariel, we're three short," Roberto reminded her. "Without Colossus and Iceman, we're outgunned. If Harry and the others can help, I don't see that we have a choice."

"Och, we've no' the time tae argue!" Rahne advised, her brogue coming out under the stress. "They're formin' up, an' they've stunners to the ready!"

"MUTANTS! YOU HAVE ONE MINUTE TO COMPLY!"

"O.k.," Ariel gave in. "O.k. Cannonball, Psyche, you two stop them forming up. Keep 'em confused and off balance. Wolfsbane, Sunspot, get in there and mix it up. I'm gonna look for the command vehicle and try to disrupt their systems. Harry--"

"We work best from a distance," said Harry crisply. "We'll stay by the edges, trying to keep you all covered, throwing hexes and curses to keep them off your backs. Ron, go left; Hermione, right. Watch me for signals."

"THIRTY SECONDS!"

"Cannonball, go!" barked Ariel.

Sam moved out from cover, taking a few steps before the lower half of his body transformed into a column of smoke and flame. With a roar, he shot across the parking lot and slammed into the tight formation of mercenaries, scattering them like bowling pins. Dani rose to her feet, turning her Psyche senses on a group of men who had somehow stayed upright. Immediately, they began to scream, dropping their weapons and fleeing terrifying illusions of their darkest fears—images that Psyche had drawn from their minds.

Roberto concentrated for a second, before all the color drained from his body, leaving a black, three-dimensional shadow shape that pounced on the dazed mercs and began striking with superhuman strength. Rahne, meanwhile, had stopped her transformation at a point midway between wolf and human, combining upright posture with lupine strength and agility. She, too, dashed into the fray. Ron and Hermione took up their positions, keeping to the periphery, looking for openings.

Harry and Ariel locked eyes briefly. "Good luck," she breathed. Harry nodded once, and moved out. Ariel exhaled, then slipped through the nearest wall.

The Hellfire Club mercenaries were tough and experienced, the best money could buy. They had been briefed on the abilities of the mutants they'd been sent to capture. A briefing was one thing, but to meet Sunspot and Wolfsbane in the flesh, was quite another. The mercs rallied, trying to regroup and to focus stunner fire on one or another of the mutants rampaging among them. But, every time they did so, Psyche or Cannonball struck. Even worse was the third factor, and unknown, for which the mercs had not prepared. Who were these others fighting alongside the muties?

Sunspot was worried about this fight. As he told Ariel, they were three down, and though Rogue was reluctant to use her powers, the group usually relied heavily on her leadership. Sunspot and Wolfsbane were doing the best they could in the close fighting, but they missed Colossus, who was stronger than either of them and whose natural armor was immune to the high-energy stun bolts now crisscrossing the parking lot.

Roberto picked up two mercenaries, slammed them together and dropped them to the asphalt. Too late, he felt something behind him and tried to turn. He heard Hermione yell, "EXPELLIARMUS!" Something whizzed over his shoulder. He completed his turn in time to see a merc stagger when a stunner flew violently out of his hands. Sunspot took advantage of the time he gained, flattening the man with a powerful right. He saw Hermione crouched behind a station wagon. She flicked him a quick salute with her wand before tossing another hex into the melee.

It was the Wizarding factor that was turning the tide. Prepared for Xavier's students, the mercenaries had no defense against the three from Hogwarts. Harry, Ron and Hermione controlled the perimeter, flitting from cover to cover, setting up a crossfire of spells that prevented Wolfsbane and Sunspot from being overwhelmed or surprised from behind.

Dani saw Ron dodge a stun bolt slightly too late. The blue energy grazed his right arm, which went limp. His wand clattered to the ground, and Ron dropped to one knee. The merc who had shot him walked over. "Stay down, kid, or you'll get hurt some more. Hey, you ain't no freakin' mutie! You're not showin' on my scanner!"

The man let his stunner hang by his side for a moment while he stared at Ron. That was the opportunity Ron needed. His right arm might be numb, but his left was fully active. Ron uncoiled like a spring, his huge fist rising from near ground level to crash with sledgehammer force into the merc's jaw. Psyche reported afterwards that the man's feet lifted six inches off the ground before he collapsed, out cold. Ron swore, blew on his knuckles, then picked up his wand with his left hand.

Harry was sniping steadily, mostly giving Cannonball room to make the short blasts that prevented the mercs from regrouping or concentrating fire, when he heard Professor X speak close by his ear. Harry, can you hear me?

"Professor?" Harry didn't look around; he was still focusing on the fight.

There's no need to speak aloud. We are communicating telepathically. Now listen, Harry. Ariel has located the Hellfire Club command center. It's in the blue truck to your immediate left. Kitty is about to attack it. She may need your help to escape.

"Got it!" Harry spotted the vehicle and Ariel approaching from the side. She vaulted onto a nearby safety barrier, then leapt through the side of the truck. Harry moved in closer.

I have told Ariel to exit on the side by you.

Harry raised his wand. There was pandemonium inside the truck--yelling, swearing, and a sudden shout of "Don't fire that in here!", followed by the wasp-like snarl of a stun bolt and a series of muffled explosions. Just as the truck erupted into flames, Kitty dove through the side nearest Harry, executing a perfect forward roll and jumping to her feet. She ran toward Harry. Three mercs bounded from the front cab after her.

Ariel had done her job. Phasing through the control systems in the command vehicle, she had disrupted all the electronics. The Hellfire Club comms were down and the containment unit meant for her and her friends was offline. The overeager young merc who had fired his stunner into a computer panel instead of Ariel had been a stroke of luck. Now, Ariel heard pursuers behind her. She had to make the wall, but she wasn't going fast enough.

Harry was just ahead. "Kitty, get DOWN!" he barked. His voice was commanding; Kitty obeyed without thinking, dropping to the asphalt. She heard him shout foreign words and felt several somethings fly over her head. She twisted around to look behind her. One of the mercs had gone stiff as a board and was slowly toppling over. Another was sprawled unconscious, while the third was on her hands and knees vomiting live creatures in assorted colors. Gross! thought Kitty, as she made her way over to Harry, who grabbed her, and pulled her to cover.

"Cool moves, Harry!" she panted, "but those slimy things are nasty!"

"You walk through walls; I make people puke slugs. We all have our talents, luv," said Harry absently, scanning the combat scene.

WHAT had he called her? Focus, girl, thought Kitty. Get back to that one, later.

She joined Harry in surveying the scene. The fight was pretty much over; most of the mercs were down, and the last couple were no match for Wolfsbane and Sunspot. Ron was flexing his right arm while Sam was thumping his back. Dani was hugging Hermione.

It's not over, yet, thought Kitty desperately, as she heard the sound of more heavy vehicles drawing near. "Regroup!" she yelled, running towards her friends while three transports swept into the parking lot and began to disgorge more mercenaries. Overhead, a squadron of autogyros snarled by, turning directly for them.

Ariel could see the shadow around Roberto was starting to flicker. The sun had gone down. Sunspot could only store so much energy. Wolfsbane still had enough stamina for three, and Cannonball could go on forever. Psyche looked determined but exhausted; using her powers drained her.

Hermione was looking a little frazzled, but there was a set to her jaw that said she wouldn't stop until it was over. Ron clearly lived for this kind of thing, his head was up and his mouth was curved in a challenging grin; somebody was going to be in big trouble if he crossed Ron Weasley right now!

Harry…Harry scared Ariel a little, even as she felt more attracted to him than ever. He was like ice--eyes blazing, mouth taut, body poised. Ariel was technically the leader, but she knew that if Harry started to give orders, she would obey him without question. They all would.

The mercenaries were in no hurry to attack. The autogyros made escape nearly impossible, and the ground troops took their time forming up. They had seen their defeated colleagues and the burning truck. They no doubt assumed that there were powerful, adult mutants in the vicinity.

Ariel's communicator beeped. "Ariel," she replied.

"Wolverine here, less than a minute out. Sitrep?"

"One merc squad down. Three more here, plus air cover. We're holding."

"Copy. Where are the Brit kids?"

Kitty smiled grimly. "Right in the thick of it, Logan, and doing one heckuva job!"

"Figures. I get to tell Charlie I told him so. Sit tight, we're here! Wolverine out!"

Kitty turned, as two vehicles swung into the lot behind them. One was the MPV with Cyclops at the wheel. The other was the modified Humvee, driven by Wolverine. The roof of the Hummer flipped open as it entered the lot. Storm and Banshee leapt through the gap, took to the air, and streaked overhead. Sean Cassidy turned the shattering power of his ultrasonic banshee scream on the merc squads, scattering the men and wrecking their vehicles.

Storm directed her attention to the autogyros. As Harry, Ron and Hermione looked on, amazed, she broke their formation with hurricane-force winds, before knocking them out of the sky with precisely placed lightning strikes.

Cyclops and Wolverine joined the fray. With one hand raised to his visor, Cyclops delivered short, devastatingly accurate bursts of the energy beams that burned from his eyes. The few mercs left standing after his and Banshee's attacks were the unlucky ones; they had to face the clawed fury that was Wolverine. Logan didn't stop or slow, he moved constantly, kicking, butting, punching, and slashing with his adamantium claws. It was over in minutes--or seemed to be.

Harry went cold. There was darkness in his head and in front of his eyes, and there were voices in the darkness--voices that told him to give it up, that it was no good any more. The voices recalled his worst, blackest moments, parading them before him. Light and joy began to disappear.

A Dementor? It was Harry's greatest fear, but he knew this evil, he knew how to defeat it. He called on the strength within himself--memories of the look in Molly Weasley's eyes when he had called her 'Mum', images of Ron and Hermione in each other's arms, Kitty smiling up at him. He called on them all, making them real. He felt his energy surge.

Harry's vision cleared somewhat. He could make out Hermione, clinging to Ron, while trying to speak. "Harry, it's not…" But he lost the rest as he swung around to face the source of the darkness. Harry had time to register that the figure before him was smaller than it should be, and white rather than black, but he was already committed.

"EXPECTO PATRONUM!"

The silver blaze from Harry's wand lit the entire car park. He heard exclamations: "Whoa!" from Cyclops, "Glory be!" from Banshee. There was a grim chuckle from Wolverine, while Storm whooped from pure exhilaration.

The familiar stag form came out of the light. It seemed to Harry that it was larger, more powerful, than the last time. Lowering its head, the stag charged thunderously across the asphalt.

Harry heard a woman's shriek of fear that became a cry of pain as a body fell with a thud and something fragile shattered. The dark voices in his head shut off. The stag was standing above a blonde woman in a white cloak, who was lying on the ground, staring up at the Patronus in terror. Under one of the stag's hooves, a silver device lay in fragments.

Banshee touched down lightly near the prone woman. "If it isn't the White Queen, herself. I'd not be movin', Yer Majesty, or yon beastie will be givin' ye more perforations than a pincushion."

"Call it off, Banshee!" the woman huffed, trying to sound commanding, though her voice shook.

"Now, why would I be doin' that, with yer boys all ready to have at us again?"

The blonde turned to Scott. "Cyclops! Get this thing away from me!"

"If you were to call your men off, Ms. Frost, we might consider it."

The woman glared at him, then pulled out a communicator similar to Kitty's. She said, "All units, this is the White Queen. Abort mission. Full withdrawal. Immediate!" She looked up at Scott, "Well?"

"Harry?" asked Cyclops.

Harry lowered his wand and held out his other hand. The stag gave one more threatening toss of its head, then turned and trotted back to him, vanishing as usual just before Harry could touch his muzzle.

The White Queen got to her feet with as much dignity as she could muster, giving an irritated signal with her hand. A white limousine pulled up to her. As she climbed into it, she looked back at them all. "This isn't over, " she vowed.

"It never will be," Scott told her, "while we're still here."

Harry relaxed, and looked around him. The others were settling down, taking stock. The three couples checked each other for injuries.

Logan's heavy hand came down on Harry's shoulder and squeezed lightly. "Nice moves, kid," growled Wolverine.

Then, Hermione was hugging Harry and Ron was pounding his back. "Another great fight, mate!" roared Ron. "I'm sorry, Harry," Hermione apologized. "I was trying to tell you it wasn't a Dementor. I didn't think the Patronus Charm would work on anything else, so I didn't try it myself!"

"That's what you get for thinking too much, darlin', " Logan warned. "Better to use your instincts, like Harry, or you miss your shot."

Soon, everyone was congratulating everyone else. The expression on Ron's face as Sam and Roberto hugged him briefly and thumped his back was priceless! Finally, Kitty came up to Harry, embracing him and kissing his cheek. She stepped back to say, "Harry, that was truly awesome! Way better than the slug thing!"

Only Cyclops wasn't happy. He loomed over Harry and Kitty, his mouth tight. "Just exactly what did you think you were doing, Harry? Getting involved like that? Putting yourself and your friends in danger?" Scott demanded.

Harry felt a flash of anger. He glared at Scott and snapped, "I did exactly what you would have done in the same situation!"

There was a moment's silence. Scott's jaw actually dropped. Banshee roared with laughter. "Ye have to admit, Cyke, the lad has you there!"

"Gotcha!" called Storm, through gales of silvery laughter. "Right between the eyes."

Cyclops grinned ruefully and shook his head at Harry. "OK, we'll say no more about it. Now, all of you, back in the car. Let's go home."

Inside the MPV, the students arranged themselves into couples: Sam and Rahne, Dani and Roberto, Ron and Hermione, and Harry and Kitty. As Kitty sat beside him, Harry, without thinking, wrapped his arm around her. Kitty snuggled in, resting her head on Harry's shoulder as the car sped into the night.

Chapter 3: "This Place is Weird!"

It was her first experience with portkey travel, and Rogue thought it would have been easier to swim to Scotland. When the world came back into focus, she was in a large room, lit by odd-looking crystal lamps and a roaring, log fire.

Beside her, Bobby let out a breath he had obviously been holding for some time. "Oof! Couldn't somebody have said 'energize', or something?"

"Good evening," said an unfamiliar voice. "Welcome to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry."

Marie found herself facing an elderly man in richly-colored robes and buckled shoes. He had a long, white beard that reached well below his waist and was watching them over his glasses with a pair of very bright blue eyes. He smiled, and spoke again. "I take it that you are Miss Marie D'Ancanto? And these young men will be Mr Drake and Mr Rasputin. I am Professor Albus Dumbledore, and you will be in my care until Easter. Please sit down."

Marie took the opportunity to study the room a little more. It was as large as Professor X's office, but stuffed with fascinating bric-a-brac. In one corner, a large bird, with glorious scarlet and gold plumage, sat on a perch and eyed them curiously. Then, the pictures on the walls caught Marie's attention. Portraits of men and women were watching her. As she stared at them, astonished, they graced her with nods or bows, while others smiled or winked.

Professor Dumbledore seated himself behind his desk and surveyed the three young Mutants for a moment, before telling them, "Here, at Hogwarts, the students are sorted into four Houses: Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff and Slytherin. The students who have gone to your school are in Gryffindor House; therefore, during your stay here, you three will join that House. You will live in Gryffindor Tower and undertake daily activities and lessons with other Gryffindors. You will also be able to earn or lose merit points for your House, upon occasion.

"In order for you to gain a full experience of our curriculum, I have arranged for you to attend a selection of both Fifth- and Sixth-Year lessons. You will not be able to take an active part in all of them, but I hope you will find some interest in observing when you cannot participate.

"We have a rule that all students should wear formal Wizarding robes. Professor Xavier was kind enough to send us your measurements some days ago, so you will find robes in your dormitories. Wear them over your usual clothes.

"For now, you will be taken to Gryffindor Tower to settle in. Your new Housemates are expecting you, and I imagine you will meet with a warm welcome."

Professor Dumbledore looked up when his office door opened. "Ah! Minerva, punctual as ever! Professor, here are our visitors from America, Miss D'Ancanto, Mr Drake and Mr Rasputin." To the students, he said, "This is Professor McGonagall, Head of Gryffindor House, who will be looking after you all on a day-to-day basis."

Professor McGonagall was tall, slender and ramrod straight, with sharp features and hair scraped tightly back. The smile she greeted them with barely tilted her thin lips, but Marie saw that the eyes behind the odd, square-rimmed glasses looked kind. "Welcome to Hogwarts," McGonagall said. "Now, if you will follow me?"

The castle was huge, a maze of corridors and passages. "We're gonna get so lost!" moaned Bobby.

Professor McGonagall sympathized. "I advise you not to wander about on your own until you're familiar with the castle. The stairs, in particular, are prone to moving unexpectedly. I'm sure any of your fellow students will be happy to act as a guide, whenever necessary."

The pictures were doing it again, Marie noticed. The people in them were gossiping and pointing; some were even slipping out of their own frames and reappearing in others further down the passage, telling those portrait people about the visitors. Professor McGonagall ignored the pictures so Marie decided to do the same.

At a junction, Peter stopped in his tracks. "Professor," he said slowly, "there's someone coming down the other passage."

"What of it, Mr Rasputin?"

"Well, he's kinda--transparent!"

"Translucent, Mr. Rasputin," Professor McGonagall corrected. "If he were transparent you would be unable to see him." McGonagall turned to address the ghost. "Good evening, Sir Nicholas. I trust I find you well?"

The misty apparition was a tall man wearing what the young Americans guessed to be Elizabethan clothing. The ghostly man smiled cheerfully at them while he told McGonagall, "Well as can be, Professor! Are these our visitors from the Colonies?"

She nodded. "Sir Nicholas, may I present Miss Marie D'Ancanto, Mr Robert Drake and Mr Peter Rasputin? They are the exchange students from the United States who will be joining Gryffindor House for the term." She told the gaping Mutants, "This is Sir Nicholas, one of our resident ghosts. He and his colleagues will no doubt be happy to help you in any way they can."

"Certes," Sir Nicholas agreed readily, "though you might keep a watchful eye for Peeves, the scurrilous knave. And, mind you well the Bloody Baron, whose soul is black as Hades. Alas, I must away."

"S-see you around," Peter managed, after several swallows. As Sir Nicholas floated off, Professor McGonagall said, "I take it that there are no ghosts at Xavier's?"

"No," said Marie, staring after the specter. Returning her attention to McGonagall, she added, "but my best friend can walk through walls."

"How remarkable! You must tell me more of this at another time. We have reached our destination."

They stopped before a portrait of a plump, cheerful-looking lady in pink. She smiled at them, but demanded, "Password?"

"Caudimorax," said Professor McGonagall. The portrait swung aside to reveal a hole in the wall. Professor McGonagall led them through into a large, candlelit room.

"This is the Gryffindor Common Room. As it is evening, most of the students are at dinner, but these Gryffindors have volunteered to welcome you to your new quarters." The Professor gestured toward two students who had risen from chairs, a tall, thin boy with a shy smile, and an attractive girl with a sensible look about her. They both wore robes that reminded Marie of graduation gowns.

"These are Miss Lavender Brown and Mr Neville Longbottom," McGonagall said. "In the absence of Miss Granger and Mr Weasley, they have been made Temporary Prefects." Professor McGonagall introduced the three newcomers before leaving the room.

Marie looked around. The room was large, but cozy, filled with old, overstuffed, chairs and couches, many drawn up to a hearth. There was a table in the middle of the room with wooden chairs arranged around it.

Neville stepped forward. "Hello, Marie, Robert, Peter. We thought you might be hungry, so we had some food brought up. Help yourselves." Peter practically ran to the table, and all five sat down. As they ate, Neville and Lavender told them about the school.

They learned about the various Houses. Gryffindor, they were told, was the best (of course). Ravenclaw was where the very clever students went, and they were OK. Hufflepuffs were nice enough, but never amounted to much. Slytherins, however, were to be avoided; they were a nasty bunch, Lavender warned.

Then, there were the classes, which all sounded odd to Marie. There was Herbology and Transfiguration, not to mention Potions, and Care of Magical Creatures. Astronomy made sense, kind of, and Marie was sure Professor X would want them to pay particular attention in History of Magic. As to Divination and Muggle Studies, only time would tell!

Afterwards, Lavender showed Marie up to the girls' dormitory. On the way, Lavender said, "You're going out with Robert, are you?"

"Is it that obvious?"

"Just a bit! I'd better warn you that he won't be able to come up here, even if there's nobody else about. If a boy tries to come up, the stairs turn into a slide! If you two want somewhere quiet for a cuddle, there's always the Astronomy Tower, or you can nip into an empty classroom."

"OK, thanks. By the way, he likes to be called Bobby."

Lavender giggled. "Not a good idea! Over here, Bobbi is a girl's name. He'd better settle for Robert or Bob!"

The dormitory was amazing. Rogue stared at the huge four-poster bed Lavender told her was hers. "You mean I get to sleep in this all by myself?"

"Well, of course!" Lavender squinted at her. "Do you share beds at your school?"

Marie chuckled, shaking her head. Then, she unpacked her things and tried on her new robes. They fit perfectly, but she felt strange in them, though she did rather like the long, black cloak for wearing outdoors.

Rogue realized she'd better tell Lavender to warn the other girls against accidentally brushing against her. Marie explained that touching her skin caused injury to others. To Marie's relief, Lavender accepted the warning without comment; Lavender didn't even follow up with the usual embarrassing question about how Marie and Bobby could kiss. In fact, Lavender asked hardly any questions. In contrast, Rogue could imagine the good-natured grilling the three English students would be getting from her friends at Xavier's.

As the two girls re-entered the Common Room, Bobby was saying to Neville, in a shocked voice, "You don't have a TV?"

"Is that a Muggle device? Sorry, none of that Muggle stuff will work here. All the Muggle-born First Years complain, but they soon get used to Hogwarts."

Bobby shook his head. "This place is weird!"

Neville laughed. "Just wait! You've not seen the half of it, Bob!"

It was about then that other students began to come in. They greeted the newcomers courteously, but kept a respectful distance. Though surprised, Marie was glad of this, because she was feeling surprisingly sleepy. It might have been the food-she hadn't been able to resist a second helping of something called treacle pudding-or it might have been the travel, but Marie felt bushed.

Still, there was too much to do to sleep. Marie and the boys soon found themselves part of a group of older students. In addition to Neville and Lavender, the group included two boys, Seamus and Dean, and two girls, Parvati and Ginny. Ginny was a Fifth Year, she explained, who would take them to some of their classes. Ginny was also the younger sister of one of the boys who had gone to Xavier's. She was a rather small, slim redhead with a mischievous grin. Marie noticed that Ginny was clearly having difficulty keeping her hot, sticky eyes off Peter!

Finally, Neville said, "If you don't mind me asking, exactly what is a Mutant? Harry told us that you're not Wizards, but you're not really Muggles, either. Is that right?"

How they differed from ordinary humans was difficult to explain to the young Wizards who knew little or nothing about Muggle science. Bobby tried his best to explain genetics and DNA. The Hogwarts students began to get the idea.

"So," Lavender said, "you don't have Mutant families like we have Wizard families. I mean, Neville and Ginny come from families that are all Wizards on both sides. Seamus, here, is a Half-blood because his mum's a witch but his Dad's a Muggle. Hermione, the girl who's gone over to America, is Muggle-born; neither of her parents are Wizards. All of your parents are Muggles?"

"I guess so," said Bobby uncertainly. "Our parents aren't Mutants. We don't know if mutancy runs in families, since Mutants haven't been around that long. The oldest ones we know of are Magneto, Professor X, and Banshee. Magneto was born before World War II, so he has to be in his seventies. Banshee's in his 40s. The Professor..." Bobby paused. "It's hard to guess his age. Mutants don't seem to age as fast as, uh, Muggles."

Just then, an appealing aroma filled the room. Neville looked up. "Ah! The cocoa's here! Everybody want some? Right, I'll fetch it, then!"

"I'll give you a hand," Peter offered, standing up.

Ginny's eyes grew round as Colossus unfolded to his full height. As he strode over to the table, she whispered to Bobby, "How tall is he, for goodness sake?"

"Six-eight," Bobby replied. Ginny whistled softly.

The cocoa turned out to be hot chocolate. Its arrival was a signal for the younger students to make their way upstairs. As for the older ones, Marie noticed couples slipping out of the room together. Ginny noticed her noticing, and leaned forward while the others were talking about something else. She told Marie about a little nook she knew of not far outside the Common Room--in case she and Bobby wanted a private moment.

"Thanks," said Marie, "but I'd feel bad leaving Petey here on his own. He's kind of shy."

Ginny's eyes danced. "Go on, the two of you. I'll look after Peter!"

I'll just bet you will, thought Marie, sharing a private smile with Bobby.

The next morning, Marie woke to find Lavender standing beside her bed. "Grab your wash things," Lavender instructed. "It's time to get ready for class."

As they walked along together, Lavender explained, "Professor McGonagall said you should use the Prefects' Bathroom. After what you said yesterday, it makes sense. The Prefects' Bathroom is less crowded, so there's less chance of an accident."

The special bathroom was luxurious to the point of magnificence, with options like scented water and even something resembling a Jacuzzi, but Rogue found several things missing. There didn't seem to be any showers, and, while a bath might be OK for a long soak, what about weekdays? The sink area seemed ordinary enough until Rogue realized there were no electrical outlets. "How do you dry your hair?" Rogue asked.

"With magic," said Lavender. "Like this." She handed Rogue her hairbrush. "It has a charm on it that dries your hair as you brush it out. Remind me, and I'll put a charm on yours, later."

It turned out that Bobby had encountered a similar problem when he tried to plug in his shaver. Luckily, Peter habitually used disposable razors, so he gave Bobby one.

Breakfast was another surprising experience. Neville had been right when he told Bobby that he hadn't seen half the weirdness, yet! The Great Hall at Hogwarts could hold a football field. At first, Rogue thought there was no ceiling when she found herself gazing up into a steel-blue, winter sky. Then, Neville explained that the ceiling was enchanted to reflect the weather outside.

The students sat at four long tables, one for each House. Neville led them to seats near Seamus, Dean, and Parvati at the Gryffindor table. Shortly after that, Ginny appeared, and plunked herself down next to Peter. Marie noticed Ginny was flirting outrageously, and, to Rogue's amazement, Peter was responding in kind. Shy Peter seemed to be adapting to Hogwarts quite quickly, Rogue thought.

There was no cafeteria line as at Xavier's. Food simply appeared on the table-- lots of it. No matter how much they ate (Peter consumed heroic amounts), there never seemed to be any less.

Halfway through the meal, Professor Dumbledore rose from his seat at the teachers' table. He called for quiet, and introduced "our three guests from the United States" to the school. There was hearty applause and some shouts of welcome from the Gryffindors. Students at two other tables, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff, responded politely. But, there was only desultory clapping from the Slytherin table. One boy among the Slytherins--a thin, pale blond--scowled as he whispered to his companions.

"That's Draco Malfoy," Lavender informed Bobby. "He and Harry-the boy who's at your school, now--have been at each other's throats since our first year. He hates Gryffindors. Watch out for him!"

Ginny jumped to her feet, announcing, "I have to go--Quidditch practice. With Harry gone, I'm playing Seeker again." She winked at Peter, "See you later?"

"Bet on it, babe!" Peter promised, then, in answer to Marie's astonished look, Peter said innocently, "What?"

"Nothing. Nothing at all." Marie squelched her grin by crunching into toast and marmalade.

The Mutants spent the rest of the day trying to get a handle on the immense, bewildering castle. Their new friends were unfailingly patient about showing them around and pointing out the various shortcuts and easy routes from place to place.

The exchange students began to form impressions of their new classmates and the lives they led. During a rare moment alone, they compared notes.

Rogue thought the Hogwarts students were just ordinary, likeable kids, apart from the fact that they had magical talent. She pointed out that Lavender was as practical and unflappable as anyone who owned a magic hairbrush and went to school in a haunted castle could be. Parvati seemed reserved, but not snooty; she had a nice, dry, sense of humor. Of the girls, Ginny was clearly the most outgoing.

Bobby and Peter had decided that Neville was the serious type. Seamus was more upbeat, and a bit of a klutz. Dean was easy going and quiet.

Students at Hogwarts, all three Mutants agreed, were very like those at Xavier's. They had special abilities that other humans lacked, so they went to a school set up for their specific needs. Also, just as Rogue and her friends lived under threat from the likes of Magneto and the Hellfire Club, so, too, Hogwarts students and their families were beset by a renegade Wizard. This menace had a name--Lord Voldemort--but only Neville seemed to have the nerve to speak of him aloud; the others referred to him indirectly as You-Know-Who.

There was one signal difference: The young Wizards did not feel threatened by the normal--Muggle--world. Nobody was trying to force a Wizard Registration Bill through the British Parliament. Hogwarts was in no danger of attack from mobs of scared and ignorant people.

While the Mutants pondered this difference, Ginny was thinking about the newcomers. She had been worried when Ron told the family he wanted to go to America. Now, she felt better. If the three who'd come to Hogwarts were a fair sample, things should go well for Ron, Harry and Hermione.

Marie somehow reminded her of Harry in the way she took charge. The other two seemed to look to her for leadership, just as Hogwarts students looked to Harry. Even the streak of pure white in Rogue's otherwise dark hair, Ginny had learned, was a souvenir from an encounter with evil, like the scar on Harry's forehead.

Bob seemed nice. Ginny liked his smile. But, why did they call him Iceman? The name didn't suit.

Ginny liked Peter best of all. She had been drawn to Peter's rugged good looks from the first, though his immense height had been a bit of a shock. He had a terrific body, nicely muscled; he was probably really strong. Underneath the shyness, Ginny sensed a reservoir of warmth and gentle humour. She was going to enjoy drawing Peter out!

Monday morning brought a flight of owls over the breakfast table. "Are those things housebroken?" asked Bobby nervously, quickly covering his plate. Privately, he thought there must be a cleaner way to deliver mail.

Then there were lessons. "Just your luck to have to start with Potions," said Ginny, as she led them into the bowels of the castle. "I'll tell you now, Snape won't like you."

"Why?" asked Bobby. "Has he got something against Americans or Mutants?"

"Neither, as far as I know. It's just that Professor Snape doesn't like anybody!"

"Maybe he has low self-esteem," suggested Marie. Ginny gave an unladylike snort of derision.

By now, they had reached what could only be the dungeons. They were torch lit, dank, and there were fragments of chains hanging from some of the walls.

"I keep on expecting to see skeletons hanging there," said Marie.

"I keep on expecting the Spanish Inquisition," put in Bobby.

"You never expect the Spanish Inquisition!" retorted Peter.

"Don't, guys!" said Marie plaintively, "just don't go there!" She mentally called down terrible punishments on whoever had decided to put Monty Python on cable TV, and on herself for forcing the others to watch 'Sliding Doors'.

Ginny looked puzzled. "Spanish what?" Marie waved off the question. Ginny told her the skeletons got fed up with being disturbed by students so they moved to the other end of the dungeons. It didn't occur to the Americans until later that Ginny might have been teasing. Even then, nobody quite had the nerve to ask her.

Bobby shook his head. "This place is weird. Every day is Halloween."

Professor Snape was a character straight out of a horror movie. Tall and thin, the man's pale, sour face was framed by lank hair. He reminded Bobby of Dracula.

Snape scrutinized the three Americans without a trace of welcome. "So, you are our guests? Well, your presence has at least rid us of Mr Potter." For the first time, Snape looked pleased. He told them, "The discipline of Potions does not involve the waving of wands or the uttering of idiotic incantations. It is a precise science requiring concentration and intelligence. I expect no less, and no more, of you than of my other students. There are spare cauldrons over there, and a stock of ingredients. For now, sit down and pay attention!"

Marie flashed him a bright smile, "OK, Professor. Thanks!"

Snape blinked twice, cleared his throat, and began the class. Today's lesson was an Intangibility Potion. Professor Snape made the students write down the recipe on parchment with quills. Struggling with these tools, the Mutants missed some of the instructions. They were glad when Snape put them in a group with Ginny. As they brewed the potion, the Professor patrolled the room, stopping to make acidic comments. Finally, he came up to them, demanding, "Well? How is the work proceeding-if, indeed, it is proceeding."

Rogue beamed up at him. She had a dazzling smile when she chose to use it. Right now, she was seriously cranking up the wattage, Bobby observed.

"It seems to be going just fine, Professor. But, we'd really appreciate it if you'd take a look, just to be sure it's OK!"

Snape harrumphed uncomfortably, and looked briefly into the gently bubbling cauldron. "Yes, well, that seems satisfactory so far, Miss D'Ancanto. Carry on!"

"Gee, thanks, Professor!"

Snape strode away, rather hurriedly, Bobby observed. Shortly after that, the lesson ended. They hung their cauldron to cool on a wooden tripod and filed out.

"What are you trying to do to Snape?" asked Ginny. "You can't possibly like the miserable old git!"

"I just think he's probably sad and lonely if nobody likes him."

"But, he's so horrid to everyone!"

"Anybody ever try being nice to him?" Rogue's comment made Ginny shake her head, more in wonder than denial.

The next lesson was Sixth-Year Herbology. Neville and Lavender escorted them to a long, low greenhouse where the teacher, Professor Sprout, greeted them in a happy and expectant tone. "You've arrived in time for something very special!" Professor Sprout told the whole class. "A friend of mine sent me some seeds from Russia. I planted one last night. Already, the plant is fully grown. We will investigate what it is."

She led them to a large pot in a cleared space at the end of the greenhouse. In it was growing the oddest plant any of them had ever seen. The plant stood about six feet tall; it had a woody bole, from which grew a cluster of leaves and a long stem crowned by a trumpet-shaped blossom.

Professor Sprout put on a heavy, leather helmet with a glass shield. She was already wearing a leather apron, and now, as she spoke, she was slipping into leather gauntlets. She said, "Always approach an unknown plant with extreme caution. Some plants don't like people!"

The class watched as she moved nearer to the pot. Suddenly, the stem began to tremble. "It seems to be frightened," said the Professor.

Then, almost too quickly for the eye to catch, the stem stretched towards the Professor. A long, thin tentacle resembling a whip erupted from the blossom to hit Sprout solidly across the head. Professor Sprout fell to the floor as if she'd been pole-axed. There was instant confusion, students yelling and screaming, and a general scramble for the doors. The plant heaved, the pot shattered, and the thing began to drag itself across the greenhouse on three sturdy roots. It moved to block the door.

The stinger lashed out toward Lavender. Fortunately, Lavender kept her head. She whipped out her wand and a silvery shield deflected the blow. Lavender turned and began to wave the students back, away from the plant.

Peter saw the stem tremble, again. Moving with a speed that belied his size, Peter put his huge frame between Lavender and the rampaging plant.

Rogue's heart leapt into her mouth. Then, she heard a reassuring clang. Peter was using his power, transforming from flesh and blood to his invulnerable organic-steel Colossus form.

There was another round of yelling, until a stentorian voice cut across the racket. "QUIET!" Marie heard. She would never have expected soft-spoken Neville to produce such a bellow. It was effective; silence fell.

Speaking now in his normal voice, Neville said, "It doesn't appear to see us. It must sense us in some other way. Could be, it's attracted by sound. Nobody move!"

He began to edge away from the rest of them. As he did so, he gestured with his wand, producing a sharp sound like a whip crack. The plant lurched toward him. Neville cracked his wand again and the plant moved forward, aiming the stinger at him. Neville ducked, and the sting passed over his head. He bounded several feet backwards, produced several more cracking sounds, and the plant followed.

Bobby raised his hands. "Frozen vegetables coming up!" he murmured.

Rogue caught his arm and whispered urgently, "Don't, Bobby! Neville knows what he's doing. You might make things worse! If that thing's from Russia, it might like cold."

Neville lured the plant deeper into the greenhouse. Then, after ducking the sting yet again, he pointed his wand and said, "Dessicatum!" As though parched from a decade's Saharan sun, the stem shriveled; its bole dried and split. Within moments, the plant was a pile of dust on the floor.

Professor Sprout had regained consciousness. Rising shakily to her feet, she moved toward Neville. "Well done, Mr Longbottom. A cool head in a crisis, and a quick grasp of the situation! Five points to Gryffindor."

She held up her helmet for all to see. Across the faceplate were drops of liquid. "You see now why precautions are so important. That sting was undoubtedly poisoned. Professor Snape should find this of interest." Addressing the students, Professor Sprout said, "That is quite enough for today. You are dismissed." She sat down heavily on a potting bench.

As they filed out, Lavender put her hand on Peter's arm. "Thank you," she said. "It was brave of you to help me."

"No problem," Peter replied. "All in a day's work for a man of steel!"

"Neville's sure a handy guy in a crisis," remarked Bobby.

Lavender's brow wrinkled. "You wouldn't credit it, would you?"

"Why not?" asked Marie.

Lavender glanced round to make certain Neville was out of earshot. "Don't get me wrong, we all love him to bits, but Neville always seemed a bit of a wimp. He's a bag of nerves, you know, scared of his own shadow-or I assumed..." Lavender's voice trailed off as she regarded Neville thoughtfully.

After lunch, Ginny took them across the grounds to a rough cottage at the edge of the forest. This lesson, she told them, was Care of Magical Creatures, one of her favourites. "You will like Hagrid," Ginny promised.

Professor Hagrid looked nothing like a teacher. He was enormous, easily eight feet tall, with a wild beard and long, dark hair. He wore an old overcoat with many pockets and sloppy boots.

He greeted the newcomers enthusiastically. "Hullo, there! Is it Marie an' Bob an' Peter, then? Yer a big one, lad," he said admiringly to Peter. "Rubeus Hagrid's the name. Welcome to Hogwarts! Talking to the assembled group, he said, "Right. Everybody follow me. Tha' means you, too, Mr Malfoy! You and yer mates failed this class last year. Do ye want to be repeatin' it next year, as well?"

Marie peered at the blond Slytherin that Lavender had warned her about. He was scowling at them. With him were two other boys--overweight, stupid-looking types--who hovered around him like bodyguards, she thought.

Professor Hagrid led them to a large paddock containing about twelve bizarre creatures. They ranged from four to six feet tall, and looked a little like ostriches, except that instead of feathers they had bright green and red scales.

"These here are wyverns," said Hagrid. "Some Wizard tried to cross ostriches with dragons and these're what he got. Now, they don' fly, and they don' breathe fire. They're quite friendly, but they're a mite skittish. If one of the littler ones starts to run, you just grab it by the back o' the neck and talk to it, calm-like, until it settles. If one o' the bigguns runs, you get out o' its way and leave it to me!"

The students were instructed to feed the wyverns dead mice. Marie was, for once, thankful that her mutation forced her to wear gloves all the time. The wyverns liked to be petted, emitting happy, whistling sounds when students gently scratched their heads. Hagrid talked about how they needed their scales oiled regularly, and how Wizards in Africa used them for racing.

Then, suddenly, Hagrid yelled, "MALFOY!"

There was a yelp, and the sound of pounding feet. Marie turned to see the largest wyvern galloping heedlessly in her direction. The smaller creature they had been feeding tried to take off, but Bobby grabbed it as Hagrid had told them, speaking gently to it as he pulled it out of the way.

As the big one thundered past, Peter's big hand clamped onto the back of its neck. Even in his human form, Peter's strength was formidable, and he used it now. His great biceps bulged under the robe as he held the struggling creature, soothing it with his deep voice. Gradually, the beast calmed so Peter could release it. It butted its head against him and whistled for a scratch.

"Well, done, Peter! Five points to Gryffindor," said Professor Hagrid. "As for you, young Malfoy, that was deliberate! I saw you teasin' that wyvern an' settin' it to running. Thought that'd be funny, did ya? Well, that'll be five points from Slytherin. Laugh about tha'!"

Draco Malfoy had been watching the three strangers carefully. He didn't believe the story about the American exchange; everyone knew there were no Wizards in America! As for all the rubbish about Mutants, there was no such thing. No, Dumbledore wouldn't let Potter out of his sight if he could help it. Potter had to be hiding out in the school somewhere.

Draco had assumed, at first, that the three "Americans" were Potter and his cronies using Polyjuice Potion, but Draco now knew that wasn't right. There was no way that the mousy, simpering little Mudblood Granger could be the same girl as forthright D'Ancanto--her attitude and body language was different. Potter and Drake were about the same size, but the purported American lacked Potter's arrogance. The big one could be Weasley, except for the fact that Ginny Weasley was all over him. Even the redheaded Gryffindor slut wouldn't behave like that with her own brother!

The trick with the wyvern hadn't produced the magic Draco had hoped to see. Maybe they were Americans, after all? In that case, they were Muggles and less than nothing. There was one way to find out...

On the way to tea, the three Mutants and Ginny found themselves in a quiet corridor confronting Draco Malfoy, Crabbe and Goyle. "Oh, Hell!" muttered Ginny.

"Well, well," sneered Draco, "our American guests! Has this school sunk so low that it is letting in Muggles? I know Gryffindor is a Mudblood haven, but really!"

"We're not Muggles," said Bobby patiently, "we're Mutants. Professor Dumbledore told you that."

"Mutants? And what's a Mutant but a jumped-up Muggle? Or, even worse, a lower kind of Mudblood? Let's see what you're made of, Mudblood!"

Malfoy pointed his wand and said something. Bobby felt his legs go to rubber, and promptly dropped to the floor, as Wolverine had taught him to do when unable to trust his footing.

With a nasty laugh, Malfoy jeered, "Can't even handle a First-Year curse. You're nothing but Muggle scum!"

Bobby looked up at him and said, deliberately, "Y'know, until a moment ago, I had nothing against you, jerk. But now, watch your back, Flatscan!"

Ginny didn't know what a 'Flatscan' was, but, from Marie's gasp, she knew it was something bad. Malfoy sneered and turned on his heel. His legs shot out from under him, and he slid the length of the corridor to fetch up hard against the wall, flat on his back, legs in the air. Ginny was too astonished even to laugh. She looked down. From where Bob's hand rested on the floor to where Malfoy lay groaning, a sparkling layer of frost coated the floor. Bob must have charmed the floor to ice; No wonder they called him Iceman!

Malfoy got to his knees and yelled for Crabbe and Goyle. "Get them," he said, nodding toward the Mutants.

The two hulking Slytherins moved toward Bobby, only to find Peter blocking their way. "Let it go, guys," he said with an amiable smile, "Don't make me hurt you."

As he spoke, a shimmer passed over his frame. Crabbe and Goyle looked up into a face that had become a carved steel mask. The mask smiled again, while two steel hands reached out to lift them both effortlessly several feet off the ground. This was no longer Peter Rasputin, but Colossus. When Colossus spoke, his voice was deep and had a hollow ring to it. "You don't stand a chance. I know it; you know it. So, let's say I put you down, and you get out of our faces--and STAY out of them. That way, I won't have to break you in half. Deal?"

Crabbe and Goyle, both ashen, nodded mutely. Peter put them down, and they ran for it. Peter laughed as he transformed.

By this time, Bobby had his legs back. The four Gryffindors carried on around the corner, past Malfoy who was still on his knees. They saw Neville and Lavender approaching.

"What's up?" asked Neville. Then, in the same bellow he had used that morning, he commanded, "PUT IT AWAY, MALFOY!"

Neville brushed past them. As they turned, they saw Neville and Malfoy facing off, wands out. "EXPELLIARMUS!" shouted Neville. Malfoy's wand flew from his hand, and the boy was thrown back against the wall. When he spoke, Neville's voice revealed a cold fury like nothing Lavender or Ginny had heard from him before.

"That's enough, Malfoy! I know you Slytherins like to hit from behind, but you don't do it to guests while I'm around! Ten points from Slytherin. Pick your wand up and get out of my sight!"

Anger and fear crossed Malfoy's face. He grabbed his wand and ran.

Neville turned around. "Come on you lot, or we'll miss tea!"

On the way, Ginny asked Peter, "What's a 'Flatscan'?"

He shrugged. "It's what some Mutants call ordinary humans. They show up as a flat line on a bio-energy scanner."

"So, I'm a Flatscan?" Ginny pressed.

"No, actually. Wizards do give off a reading, though it's different than a Mutant one. Anyway, babe, no one would ever call you flat." He winked and gave Ginny a meaningful glance.

"Cheeky!" Ginny protested, with a delighted grin.

Lavender said nothing. She was staring at Neville as if she had never seen him before.

Late in the evening, they attended an Astronomy class. Luckily for the Americans, they knew most of the northern constellations, though they were used to viewing them from further west, of course. At the end of the lesson, Ginny said to Peter, "I need a bit more practice at this. Want to stay and keep me company?"

"Sure. I like stargazing."

Stargazing? Bobby smirked, as Peter's deep chuckle and Ginny's giggle floated down from the Astronomy Tower behind them. Stargazing--yeah, right!

Chapter 4: A Fray in the Forest

By the end of the week, Rogue and her friends were coming to terms with the everyday strangeness of Hogwarts. They were used to ghosts, including the one who taught History of Magic. They had become accustomed to moving portraits, shifting stairs, and owls delivering letters. The robes now seemed less awkward, as did the quills and parchment. They had even come to accept the absence of TV, though Marie was missing her weekly fix of "Buffy".

Some things still bothered Marie. Of all the teachers, only Professor Hagrid ever used their given names. Then, there was the way Peter's shyness had melted like a marshmallow in hot chocolate--the Ginny Effect, Bobby called it. It was pretty much established by now that Ginny and Peter were dating. What would happen to Peter's new self-confidence if Ginny dumped him?

Most of all, though the Hogwarts kids (except for some of the Slytherins) were courteous, even friendly, they kept their distance. At first, Marie had been a little hurt, thinking they didn't trust her. Then, when she looked closer, she realized they gave each other more space than her friends did, back home. Lavender and Parvati were best friends, but they didn't act toward each other as Rogue and her friend, Kitty, did. Rogue decided that what she'd heard about British reserve must be true.

The three Americans (or 'Colonials', as Nearly Headless Nick called them) were treated just like the other pupils with a few differences. They received an unexpected invitation to 'take tea' with Professor McGonagall in her private sitting room. There, amid chintz draperies and porcelain figurines, they drank Darjeeling tea from fine china cups and ate hot, buttered crumpets and fancy cakes. Professor McGonagall wanted to know more about Mutants in general, their own abilities, and those of their classmates and teachers.

They were summoned to Professor Dumbledore's study on Friday evening to send messages to their friends at Xavier's, and to read ones received from them. Kitty's letter to Marie started out newsy but, halfway through, degenerated into a ramble about Harry this and Harry that and the general wonderfulness of Harry. Dani's letter was more to the point. After a typically witty description of the past week, she added, "P.S. Kitty's got it bad for Harry. I think he's coming around. Hope so, he's a neat guy. And hot!"

There was no schedule for the weekend. The American students didn't know what to expect until Neville pronounced Saturday "a day to clear the head". Bobby, Marie and Peter were relieved. A week of struggling with new ideas had left the Mutants feeling beat. It would be good just to relax.

After breakfast, they went out to watch the Quidditch practice. Bobby and Neville exchanged explanations of their favourite sports. Once again, Bobby's head was whirling with new terms like "Seeker", "Quaffle", "Bludger", "Snitch" and "Chaser". Neville struggled to understand the meaning of "quarterback", "linebackers", "first down", "tight end" and the "Shotgun Formation".

The boys showed every sign of trading questions and answers throughout lunch, so Marie slipped away to talk with the girls. She wanted to find out more about Harry. She had only met him briefly, and she'd liked his smile, but she wondered if he'd be good for Kitty.

Ginny was clearly surprised by the news that Harry had taken up with an American girl. "Your friend's lucky Harry's even noticed her," Ginny said, in a wistful tone. "This Kitty must be really special." Ginny sighed, and looked down at her plate. After Peter put an arm around her and squeezed lightly, Ginny grinned and returned to her normal, cheery self.

Marie already knew Kitty was special, so she turned to Lavender, hoping for a more revealing reply. What she learned was both encouraging and intriguing. Harry's parents had been murdered by Voldemort, but the black magician hadn't been able to kill Harry. Harry had been reared by his mean aunt and uncle. Several times over the last five years, Harry played a pivotal role in important events around the School and in the larger Wizarding world. But, Lavender believed he had paid a price for his prominence among wizards: he seemed so much alone. "If your friend Kitty can bring Harry out of himself," Lavender said, "it will do him a world of good. He deserves to be happy."

After lunch, they all decided to go outside, again, as the sky remained clear and bright. Bobby brought his basketball with him, hoping for a little one-on-one with Peter, but Hogwarts had no basketball court. So, Peter suggested a game Roberto had invented last winter when the court at Xavier's was buried under a foot of snow--ice basketball.

Peter and Bobby explained the rules to their English friends, who led them to a small, partially frozen pond. Bobby froze it down to the bottom, ensuring a safe, smooth playing surface ("How does he do that?" asked Parvati). Neville conjured floating rings at either end for goals, while Lavender and the others transfigured everyone's boots into ice-skates ("How do they do that?" asked Bobby). There was some difficulty about picking teams, as there were nine players. Luckily, Parvati's sister, Padma, came along and decided to join in, noting, "Even Ravenclaws can't study all the time!"

In the end, Parvati and Padma teamed up with Bobby, Marie and Dean, while Neville, Lavender, Seamus and Ginny sided with Peter. Marie and Neville agreed that having two experienced players on one side cancelled out the advantage of Peter's height. Marie also noticed that Lavender seemed eager to be close to Neville, these days.

The game was friendly, with a lot of good-natured banter. There were disputes about the rules: Was Padma allowed to levitate the ball through the ring? There was a debate about tactics: Should Ginny's goal count? She had been perched on Peter's shoulder at the time. Peter's defence--that Ginny must have gotten there by magic--was not taken seriously.

Marie suddenly noticed a tall, dark figure standing by the edge of the pond. She skated over to stop gracefully before Professor Snape, treating him to the full gigawatt grin. "Hi, Professor! Enjoying the game?" she asked.

Severus Snape was having a difficult week. For as long as he could remember, no students, especially not those from Gryffindor, had gone out of their way to be pleasant to him. He hadn't a clue how to handle Miss D'Ancanto, yet something inside his scarred soul responded to her. He had forgotten, or never known, how it felt to be liked. The fact that her two friends had followed her example added to his confusion. It was not that they were disrespectful, far from it, but that they were neither hostile nor afraid. He found himself perplexed by D'Ancanto, reluctant to let this direct, strong-willed girl get the better of him.

"Well, Miss D'Ancanto, I see you are corrupting our youth with your American culture!"

"I need the workout, Professor. This place has ruined my diet. I'm getting addicted to treacle pudding!"

"A warming dish for a cold season, Miss D'Ancanto. Surely not even an American could live on quiche and salad in the midst of a Scottish winter?"

Marie laughed. "You're so right!" She looked at him, cocking her head to one side. "Professor, you are allowed to use my first name, you know. It's Saturday, and we're not in class."

Snape cleared his throat. "Quite. Well, enjoy your game...Marie." He turned on his heel and stalked off. Marie looked after him, murmuring, "See? That didn't hurt a bit, did it?" then she went back to the others.

"Marie," said Parvati, "Are you certain you're not a witch?"

"What?" she asked, puzzled.

Parvati grinned at her and rolled her eyes. "You seem to have the magical ability to transfigure Snape into a human being! Do you realise he almost smiled at you, even though he wasn't taking points from Gryffindor?"

"Go on!" protested Marie, above the other students' uproarious laughter. "Snape isn't that bad. Compared to Wolverine, he's just a big teddy bear!" Bobby and Peter were forced to agree; the craggy Canadian Mutant was a notoriously hard taskmaster.

"Will this Wolverine be teaching Harry?" asked Neville.

"Maybe. I don't know for sure," replied Marie.

"I see," said Neville, gravely. "If he is, I don't know which of them to feel sorriest for!"

That comment occasioned more laughter. Then, the students went back to their game. Even though no one played terribly hard, they all felt relaxed and clear-headed as they went in for tea.

Afterward, with the pale winter sun already low in the sky, they sat by the hearth in the Common Room. Peter, true to his Russian blood, loved chess, and had taken up Wizard Chess with a vengeance. He and Neville were in the midst of their umpteenth pitched battle.

Marie turned to Bobby, happy they were on their own for a moment. "Bobby, what do you think it is with Peter? I mean, he's really opening up."

Bobby grinned, then grew serious. "The other night, Peter told me he feels at home, here. We're way out in the sticks, which is just the way Petey likes it. Remember, he grew up on a farm.

"Think about the kids at Xavier's, Marie. Your folks aren't rich, but they aren't poor, either. My family's solid middle class, like Kitty's and Dani's. Rahne belongs to some important Scottish clan, and 'Berto's father is about the richest man in Brazil. Sam's dad was a miner, but he still earned more than Pete's.

"So, Petey feels like a hick most of the time at Xavier's. We all talk about things he hasn't had or hasn't done. But, here, it's different. The Hogwarts kids know even less about TV or fashion or--whatever--than Petey does. And, of course, there's Ginny."

"You can say that, again!" Marie exclaimed. "They hardly take their eyes off each other. Hands, I don't want to even think about!"

"That girl tells it like it is. She's upfront. When she wants something, she goes for it, so Peter understands and trusts her."

Marie felt reassured. Bobby knew Peter a lot better than she did. Peter was coming out of his shell, and Bobby thought that was good.

Just then, Lavender interrupted the chess game to speak urgently to Neville. "Sandra, here," Lavender said, indicating a First Year, "thinks there's some trouble. You know those Muggle-born twins, Kylie and Jason Barrett? Well, it sounds like a couple of First-Year Slytherins dared the twins to meet them in the Forbidden Forest after tea. Sandra was coming back from the library and she saw the Slytherins laughing in the corridor. She's looked everywhere, but the twins are gone! What shall we do? They must still be in the Forest--and it's getting dark!"

Neville frowned with concentration, then came to a decision. "We haven't time to get any teachers. Most of them aren't even here at weekends. We'd never make Filch understand, and I don't want to involve Hagrid, because he'd stop us from going into the Forest. We'll have to find the twins, ourselves.

"It'll be Seamus, Dean, Parvati, Ginny, you and me. We can't risk more. If half the Fifth and Sixth Years are missing at dinner, somebody will notice. We'd better get ready," said Neville.

As the Gryffindors dashed to the dormitories, Rogue made a decision: It was the same decision Harry would make a few hours later and three thousand miles away. When Bobby and Peter looked at her, she nodded brusquely, then pelted up the stairs.

Lavender watched Marie lace her boots and zip a camouflage jacket. "Marie, what are you doing?" Lavender asked, alarmed. "You mustn't go with us. The Forest is dangerous."

Marie looked Lavender straight in the eye, while she tied back her hair, leaving the white streak loose, like a badge. "Honey," Rogue said slowly, a hint of her natural Southern drawl emerging. "Don't worry your head about us. You ain't seen nuthin', yet."

Lavender backed off. "OK, er, Rogue. I admit we could do with the help. Come on, then, if you're coming!"

Marie took a deep breath. Why was it that every time she was challenged, the accent she'd worked so hard to lose crept back? When Rogue next spoke, her speech was as crisp as usual. "First time you ever called me 'Rogue'."

Lavender shrugged. "It seems right, somehow. Come to think of it, you've never called me 'honey' before, either."

Downstairs, Bobby was arguing with Neville. "How good are you at tracking in a wood? Logan taught us, and Wolverine's the best there is! You need us, Neville, and you know it!"

Neville shrugged, his hands palm-up. "I know, Bob, I know. But, you're guests. You understand I had to try."

"Yeah, I know. But, we're Gryffindors, too. No hard feelings?"

Neville nodded, unrolling a sheet of parchment on the table. "Harry lent this to me before he left," he explained, while touching the sheet with his wand. "I solemnly swear I am up to no good," Neville intoned.

The blank parchment turned into a detailed plan of the castle. Rogue stared, amazed to see small symbols moving around on the map. Neville indicated the dot labelled 'Argus Filch'.

"We're in luck! He's in the other wing. If we go quickly, we can slip out here," Neville pointed to a side door, "and nip straight across to the Forest."

"Let's do it!" said Rogue.

Neville tapped the map, "Mischief managed," and it was blank parchment, again.

They stole through the castle, quickly and quietly, finding the side door unlocked. "Kylie and Jason must have come this way," remarked Neville. "We should be close on their tail."

Unfortunately, they were not as close as Neville thought. Bobby spotted where the twins had actually gone into the trees. Bobby smirked, but refrained from saying 'I told you so'.

The forest was gloomy, oppressive, and obviously ancient. Rogue guessed it had been here since the days of Leif Eriksson--never mind Columbus! The place was alien, and yet, as they went deeper, she became aware of her heightened senses, senses she'd absorbed from Wolverine.

A little over a year ago, Rogue had been forced into a diabolical machine that nearly killed her. Wolverine risked his own life to touch her, transferring much of his life energy and healing powers to Rogue. His strength had revived her, saving her life, but that was not all she had gained from him. Rogue discovered the astonishing, new world revealed to her by Wolverine's gift, a world of sights, sounds and scents more intense than she had ever known. Even after Logan recovered and his powers ebbed from her body, Marie retained traces of Wolverine's acuity. Her senses of hearing and smell were keen, and her night vision was exceptional.

Here in the Forbidden Forest, night was falling fast. While the others peered helplessly into the darkness, Rogue could see precisely which path the twins had taken. She led the way.

But, it was Parvati who found the First Years. A boy and girl were in a clearing, back to back, wands out. They were surrounded by giant spiders. Parvati launched a bright orange fireball, which reduced the oversized arachnids to ash. More spiders lurked in the shadows, squeaking, twittering, and signalling each other in high-pitched shrieks.

Neville said, "Those things are Aragog's brood. They'll chase us all the while we're in here, but they won't follow us out of the trees. We can't shield and move too well, so we'll just have to keep going and hit them when they close in. Put the First Years in the middle, and stay together."

"Just a sec, Neville," said Rogue. "We can help. I'll cover the kids. Colossus, take point. Iceman, watch the rear. The rest of you can watch the flanks. OK, Neville?"

Neville nodded, "Good thinking, Marie."

Rogue shook her head, pointing to herself, then Peter and Bobby. "In here, it's Rogue, Colossus and Iceman."

Neville blinked, then shrugged. "If that's what you want. Right, everyone! Let's go!"

Peter slipped off his padded jacket and wrapped it around Kylie Barrett, who was shivering. His jacket reached to her ankles. "Steel doesn't feel the cold, but little girls do," Peter said. He transformed into his armoured form. Then, he pressed ahead silently despite his great size and mass. Rogue took the children's hands in her gloved ones. The others formed up, and they began to move.

The spiders attacked almost at once, from all directions. The defence was as spectacular a display as Rogue had ever seen. Parvati and Dean were determined and precise. Lavender was icy calm, while Seamus was almost reckless in his courage. Ginny fought fiercely. Rogue saw spiders flung against trees, erupt into flames, explode, implode, crumble to dust, shrink to the size of regular insects, and sink suddenly into the ground.

Out in front, Colossus, invulnerable to bite and sting, was opening a path with the crushing blows of his steel fists. To the rear, Iceman was freezing spiders in their tracks. Neville seemed to be everywhere, spelling the others with blasts from his wand.

They made progress, but slowly. The spiders attacked in waves. Lavender realised that their escape was taking far too long; she and her friends were becoming languid and weary. Something was wrong. Lavender dropped back near Rogue and the twins, searching for an unseen enemy.

She spotted the problem almost immediately. There was a short, thin figure standing under an ancient oak. She could feel the malice pouring from it. In a lull between attacks, she called to Neville, who ran over.

"What's up? Neville asked, panting.

"There's something funny going on, I can feel it!" Lavender indicated the thing under the tree with a jerk of her head. "I think that creature, whatever it is, is mazing us in this forest."

"Oh, it is, is it? Well..." Neville raised his wand.

Lavender stopped him. "Don't! Neville, we're lost in here. If we kill that thing, we may never get out. We need to persuade it, or force it, to show us the way."

"Persuasion?" said Rogue. "That's my department, people! Y'all stay put for a little. Iceman, we need a barricade!"

"Coming right up!"

The Hogwarts students, who had yet to grasp the full extent of Iceman's powers, watched in amazement as he stretched wide his arms, and formed a circular barrier of solid ice around the group. When it was chest high, the Wizards could fight off the spiders from inside, while Colossus ranged tirelessly around the perimeter.

Rogue climbed outside the circle and slipped into the trees, placing her feet noiselessly, as Wolverine had taught her. She approached the creature under the tree by a circuitous route.

Whatever it was, it was man-shaped, but less than four feet tall. It seemed to be naked, and its hide had the appearance of weathered bark. Right now, it was watching avidly as the spiders launched another attack on the ice barrier, only to be thrown back by a barrage of spells and the raw strength of Colossus.

Rogue mentally prepared herself as best she could, then pulled off her glove. The thing became aware of her just as she reached for it. It had a pinched, little face with huge hazel eyes that glared venomously at Rogue. It opened an unnaturally wide mouth full of sharp teeth. But, the creature was too slow, Rogue grasped it by the arm and felt the familiar disorientation as her power took hold.

Her/it's name was Jack--Jack o' the Green. She/it was the forest in some way. She/it could twist the paths and make the creatures docile or fierce at will. In the summer, she/it was benign, but mischievous; she/it led wandering young couples into quiet glades, so the forest could rejoice in their loveplay. But in the winter, she/it became malign and cruel, mazing travellers until they collapsed and froze, leaching their warmth into the soil, or setting some beast on them to feed the earth with gouts of hot blood. She/it wanted the warmth of these young bodies, and had roused the spiders to obtain it.

But, Jack was afraid of things like fire, open sky, and bright stars. Most of all, Jack feared metal--the presence of Colossus was a spike of bitter pain. It was this pain that Rogue seized, using it to submerge Jack's will beneath her own, taking command of the forest creature's powers. Rogue began to run and, as she did, she filled the minds of the spiders with fear, causing them to flee toward the safety of the shadows.

The students saw her coming, and were shocked by her transformation. Rogue's skin had a bark-like texture, and her eyes were deep green-brown. When she spoke, her voice sounded like the sigh of wind through trees. "Follow me, now," she breathed.

Colossus kicked a gap in Iceman's barrier and snatched up the twins. Everyone began to run after Rogue.

The nearer they came to the edge of the forest, the more Jack began to panic, and the harder it was for Rogue to keep control. Rogue felt herself slipping away. Something in her mind seemed to be screaming to turn back toward the sheltering forest. She stopped, swaying, struggling. Jack would not go forward, but Rogue could not go back. "Help me!" Rogue sobbed.

Then, Bobby and Ginny were at her side, grasping her arms, supporting her, encouraging her. Buoyed by love and affection, Rogue fought Jack's hold on her. Just moments later, they were in the open, with Hogwarts Castle looming before them, lights bright and welcoming.

Jack disappeared; the creature could not bear open sky. Rogue had never experienced such a complete and sudden withdrawal. She felt as if her mind had been torn in two. She held her head and staggered.

A giant figure appeared in front of her. "Here now, wha's goin' on, then?"

Rogue's eyes rolled up in her head, and she collapsed with a groan into Hagrid's arms.

Chapter 5: Hellfire and Heart

An elegant Georgian mansion is atypical architecture for the buzzing center of New York City, but the owners of this building had zealously maintained its impressive facade. Even the impassive footmen at the doors were clad in Regency costumes, though their capacious pockets might contain Tasers and telescopic batons while their powdered wigs could effectively conceal high-tech radio earpieces. This was, after all, a place for the wealthy and powerful--the New York branch of the Hellfire Club.

Ostensibly, this was an exclusive club for society's elite. The men and women who passed these portals reeked of old money, invisible business empires and ruthlessly wielded political influence. The cars that swept up to the foot of the steps included no white stretch Cadillacs, red Ferraris or silver Porsches. Lincoln, Jaguar and Rolls-Royce were the marques of choice.

Inside, the club was a haven for genteel dissipation. Here, a gentleman who had drunk too much would be discreetly escorted upstairs to sleep it off. Here, a man could bring his mistress, or a woman her lover, with not an eyebrow raised. For those who came alone, a selection of companions to suit all tastes was available.

But, among the cocktails and conviviality, other activities went on. Above the public rooms and the private suites was a penthouse level with soundproof and electronically secure meeting rooms. There was a communications suite with satellite links to the Club's branches in Los Angeles, London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Moscow, Capetown, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Sydney. In these rooms, decisions were made and bargains struck that affected the lives of millions, the economies of nations, and the future of the world.

Yet, even the privileged few with access to that upper floor were ignorant of what lay below them. Beneath the wine cellars was a complex that stretched to encompass an entire subterranean city block. This was the headquarters of the Inner Circle of the Hellfire Club-an elite unknown even to the elite.

That Saturday evening, in the oak-paneled conference room at the heart of his underground domain, Sebastian Shaw, Black King of the Inner Circle, was preparing for a meeting.

Shaw was a tall, powerfully built man in his early forties, owner and president of a medium-sized company called Shaw Industries. By methods honest, dishonest and surreptitious, Shaw had added to the stock portfolio built up by his grandfather and father until he owned, always inconspicuously, a controlling interest in literally hundreds of businesses worldwide. His wealth, both personal and corporate, was incalculable, but it paled by comparison with his influence.

All of this, though, would mean nothing if the world learned his greatest secret. Sebastian Shaw was a Mutant. He possessed the ability to absorb and metabolize kinetic energy, a power that made him almost invulnerable to physical attack and allowed him to acquire temporarily superhuman strength. Shaw knew that if the public ever learned of his Mutant status, the empire he had built would fall into ruin.

Shaw was a businessman, and a politician. He knew how to get things done. He had formed the Inner Circle two years ago. The requirements for membership were simple: wealth, influence, and the stigma of mutancy. The Inner Circle's aim was to insinuate Mutants into the fabric of society's political and economic echelons. Before people realized what had happened, Mutant domination would be a fait accompli.

In a rare moment of whimsy, Shaw had decided that members should name themselves after a chessman. Of course, he would be the Black King. His loyal lieutenant and lover, Emma Frost, was the White Queen.

Today, his queen had suffered a setback. Shaw had sent Emma and several squads of mercenaries to capture youngsters from Xavier's school. Shaw had been unable to place a spy inside the school, but remote surveillance revealed that the three most powerful senior students, code-named Rogue, Iceman and Colossus, were unaccountably absent. Meanwhile, three neo-Mutants had arrived at the school from the UK. When word came that the students were away from school at a local shopping mall that day, Shaw had acted quickly.

The mission had been an absolute failure. Not only had Xavier's students proved more determined and resourceful than anticipated, but the three neo-Mutants had also turned out to be nothing of the kind. What they were, Shaw had no idea, but they were clearly every bit as dangerous as their Mutant classmates. To add insult to injury, Shaw had not anticipated the swift intervention by four of Xavier's adult X-Men. Clearly, a bolder and more radical strategy was required.

The Black King bore neither the young Mutants nor their mentor any personal ill will. But, as a businessman, Shaw could not bear to see valuable assets wasted. Xavier had no idea how to use these children properly. Shaw did.

The door in front of him opened, and the tall, slender figure of the White Queen entered. Shaw rose to his feet and hurried to meet her, taking her into his arms.

"It's OK, Sebastian," Emma said, returning his embrace. "I'm fine. I was just a little shaken up, that's all."

They shared a lingering kiss, then turned to business. Shaw said, "Leland and Pierce should be here, momentarily. Is there anything you need to tell me before they arrive?"

"Nothing they don't need to know. But, I'll tell you, now, those English kids are going to be a handful!"

"Hmm. They're not our primary target, but that doesn't mean they can be killed or injured out of hand. Where there are kids, there are adults like them. We could be inviting the kind of trouble we don't need right now!"

The Inner Circle as yet numbered only four. Not surprisingly, Shaw had found it difficult to recruit individuals who fit his strict requirements. The first to arrive of the remaining two was Henry Leland, the shadowy figure behind a worldwide media empire.

Leland reminded some people of Henry VIII. He was destined to be a stocky man, but years of self-indulgence had added an extra two hundred pounds to his weight. He had a ruddy face framed by gingery hair and beard, and pale blue, protuberant eyes. Leland was a Mutant who could geometrically increase the mass of any object or person he selected. Code-named the Black Bishop, Leland was the Inner Circle's intelligence officer, using his media contacts and complex computer systems to ferret out deeply held secrets.

Closely following Leland was the White Rook, Donald Pierce. Tall, thin and dark, with pale ascetic features, Pierce had been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, a talent for engineering and electronics, and a reckless nature. He was the only Inner Circle member whose name was widely known to the public. Some years ago, the playboy inventor had been testing a race car of his own design when tragedy struck: Pierce had been pulled, horribly scarred and crippled, from the burning wreckage, and had begun the life of a recluse in his family's remote mansion.

Skilled plastic surgery had restored his face, and his own genius had replaced his lost limbs with powerful cybernetic ones. When he chose to take direct action, the White Rook's bionic limbs made him a human juggernaut. To the public, he remained a crippled recluse, but, to the Inner Circle, he was a provider of high-tech devices and advanced weaponry.

Emma Frost, millionaire heiress, noted educationalist and Mutant telepath, was glad to note that none of these men blamed her for the afternoon's fiasco. There had been a wild card in the pack, and they were all experienced enough players to respect that fact.

Shaw opened the meeting. "Any questions about Emma's report?"

"These Brits," said Pierce, "you say they're not Mutants?"

The White Queen shook her head. "We could get no readings from them. Our field-issue scanners aren't very sensitive, though. If we'd gotten the kids into the truck, we'd have learned more.

"I wasn't able to mind-scan them deeply, as Xavier was watching all the time, but they don't think of themselves as Mutants. They think--" she paused and shrugged. "They think they're wizards, or two wizards and a witch, actually."

Nobody laughed. Leland frowned. "If they are, they're weak ones. Nothing they did to any of our people caused permanent or serious harm."

"They were holding back," Frost explained. "They kept reminding themselves that our men were only...the word they used was 'Muggles', whatever that means. Anyhow, they were only using low-level stuff. The energy manifestation the kid called Harry set on me was much more powerful. It could have killed me if he'd let it."

This news was also accepted with silent nods. Shaw decided to move on.

"We have an impasse, then. Emma, are you sure we can't bring any of Xavier's staff over to us?"

The White Queen said, "Summers, McCoy and Monroe are all ex-students; they see Xavier as a father and would never betray him. Cassidy and Xavier go back a long way--too long for us to turn him. Kurt Wagner--the Nightcrawler, as they call him--feels he's finally found a family, and he won't let them down. That leaves Wolverine. He respects Xavier, but he's intensely loyal to the kids. He'd be harder to turn than the rest put together. Henry, do we know any more about Wolverine?"

Leland blew out his cheeks, a characteristic gesture of frustration. "More than he knows himself, probably, but that's precious little. We made copies of Stryker's files about the Weapon X Project. We know that Logan was part of the Special Forces in Cambodia and Laos. After he escaped from Alkali Lake, he worked for Canada's Department H, where he helped Vindicator set up their Alpha Flight Project. Then, he cut out and went to Japan, where he had some run-ins with the Yakuza. Finally, he came back to Alberta, where Xavier recruited him.

"As to the rest, it's all rumor and folk-tales. Old folks in Alberta still talk about a wild man in the woods called 'Logan'--the one who brings home lost kids, takes out rogue bears and, they say, fought the Wendigo. But, those stories go back to the 1900s! There was a soldier called Logan who served in the Canadian Army in both world wars and Korea. Probably a family thing, but people say it was the same man. Who the hell knows?"

Shaw had made up his mind. "We need those kids before Xavier ruins them. His mansion is isolated, so there's no reason not to make a daylight raid. I don't think anyone here wants to take on Wolverine, Nightcrawler or the Beast in the dark! We go in fast, grab all the kids and get out. Emma, are any of the Hellions ready, yet?"

Frost considered. "Jetstream is still recovering from his latest bionic implants. Cypher's no good in a fight, and Tarot is too unstable. Thunderbird, Catseye and Empath are ready, but they need field experience. But, even with them and the four of us, Sebastian, we're no match for the X-Men."

"Not to worry. Donald is stacking the deck for us. Donald?"

The White Rook grinned. "I can have six Sentinels battle-ready in three weeks' time, Sebastian."

"That's it, then. As for the English kids, we take and examine them. Then, if needs be, we send 'em back where they came from with an apology and a large sum of money. Business is business, after all."

Harry, Ron, Hermione and their Mutant friends returned to Xavier's mansion and, by unspoken consent, made their way into the Quiet Lounge, which was blessedly empty. They were all in a subdued mood, as opposed to the adrenalin high they had been on just after the battle ended. Harry and Kitty were holding hands, which seemed right; Harry felt no compulsion to let go of her. They sat on the couch, and Kitty once again snuggled against him as he put his arm around her.

Everyone seemed to feel a need to be together. Harry recognised the feeling. In the past, after what Hermione insisted on calling their "adventures", the three of them had really wanted nothing more than to sit quietly together for a while. Of course, it was more than just three of them here, and, with Kitty resting, warm and quiet against him, Harry thought this was even better.

Then, Professor Xavier wheeled himself into the room. It was not uncommon for the Professor to be seen in here; in fact, over the week, he had played several evenly matched chess games with Ron. But, under these circumstances, Harry could not help thinking of Scott's rebuke. Were they to be sent back to Hogwarts in disgrace?

The Professor asked, "May I have your attention, please? I realize you have all been through an ordeal, but it is important that I should debrief you while your memories are fresh. The process will take only a few moments. Please relax and close your eyes. Try not to think of anything."

Harry complied, surprised to feel a presence in his mind. It was the warm, kindly, but immensely powerful, presence of Xavier! The Professor's thoughts said, Relax, Harry, I mean you no harm. If you do not wish me to share your thoughts in this way, I can speak to you more conventionally in the morning.

Instinctively, Harry replied without speaking. It's OK, Professor. I was just surprised. Anyway, I couldn't stop you, could I?

You underestimate yourself. None of the others are even aware of my telepathic presence. Yours is an unusual mind, Harry. If you were to set your will to block me, I should find it no easy task to break through.

Harry relaxed deliberately, and felt the Professor's delicate probing of his afternoon memories. It was over in seconds, and Harry felt somehow cleaner, refreshed.

Thank you, Harry.

"Thank you all," said the Professor, aloud. "Now, I think you should all go up to your rooms, take a shower and change. Then, come back here. Rather than go to the cafeteria, I've arranged for you to have dinner in this room--something a little special by way of saying 'Well done!'"

"Professor," Harry asked anxiously, "are we going to be sent home?"

Xavier smiled. "Not on any recommendation of mine, Harry. I should be sorry to lose you all so soon, especially since Ron is a game ahead of me in our little tournament.

"However, the final decision is not mine, but Professor Dumbledore's. I am meeting with him tomorrow; we will know the outcome then. It appears you three have not been alone in finding some excitement. Yes, Logan?"

Wolverine had appeared at the door. "Just reporting in. I've swept the perimeter. We weren't followed, but I found some miniature cameras and bugs set up outside--high-tech remote surveillance stuff. I disabled it all."

The Professor nodded, and said good night. Logan approached Harry. Hermione and Ron moved closer. Wolverine addressed them all. "You kids did good, real good. I'm proud of you all!"

This speech had the desired effect. Logan was sparing in his praise of students, so encouraging words were the more valued when bestowed. He looked at the three Hogwarts students. "I'll be at this meeting tomorrow. I just want to say that if I get a vote, you'll be staying, OK?"

The three nodded their thanks. Ron indicated the close-fitting outfit Wolverine was wearing. "I like the uniform, but black leather?"

"Fashion police made me give up yellow spandex," growled Logan. "By the way, you three, your uniforms are on order, should arrive Monday. Report to the Danger Room at fourteen hundred Monday, sharp! You kids are in my classes from now on." Logan left.

"What's Spandex?" Ron asked.

"Lycra," replied Hermione, without thinking.

"Ah! Good!" said Ron. "Er, Hermione?"

Hermione, realising what she'd done, closed her eyes as if in prayer. "Yes, Ron?"

"What's Lycra?"

Hermione buried her face in her hands for a moment, then flung herself at Ron and began to kiss him savagely. The rest of them were still laughing as they made their way upstairs.

Harry showered quickly, and was finished by the time Ron, tousled and grinning from ear to ear, came into the room. He took one look at Harry, and went quietly about his business.

Harry didn't want to go back to Hogwarts so soon. Oh, he missed Ginny and Lavender and Neville and the rest, but now there were his new friends to consider. There was more he wanted to find out about them and to share with them. He also felt that being sent home would reflect badly on the school, and on Dumbledore, who had placed so much trust in him.

Harry had changed since coming here. Last year, he had been coldly angry and driven. After the loss of Sirius, he had felt compelled to withdraw from human relationships. People Harry loved died. To keep them safe, he reasoned, he must cease to love them. Because he loved Ron and Hermione most of all, he had even drawn away from them. But, they had refused to let him go.

Molly Weasley, whom Harry had begun to believe was wiser, in her way, than Dumbledore, had dragged him into the heart of probably the most loving family in England. Even Harry's iron will had been unable to keep up his walls in those circumstances. By the time he returned to Hogwarts, he had been more himself, open to the unexpected pang of pure joy he had felt when Hermione and Ron finally found each other. But, the weight of his unresolved destiny still pressed on him.

Then, he had come to Xavier's (and now he wondered if this was part of the reason Dumbledore had sent him here) and rediscovered his younger, lighter, self. These Americans, with their open faces and uncomplicated friendliness, had struck a chord with him. Their strange abilities were almost irrelevant; Harry, too, had some uncanny powers. What mattered was that they expected nothing more of him than simply to be Harry. Even today's battle had not changed that, he realised, because Harry Potter--the real Harry Potter--had always been someone who would put his life on the line for a friend without hesitation or reservation.

Harry heard the shower start to run, and Ron's pleasant baritone rose in a song he liked from Sam's favourite CD:

"Sirens are screaming/And the fires are howling/Way down in the valley tonight/There's a man in the shadows/With a gun in his eye/And a...OWWWW! Oh, bloody hell!"

Harry flopped over onto his stomach and laughed heartily into the pillow. After one week, Ron had still to get the hang of the sophisticated, ultra-modern shower cubicle!

By the time Ron came back into the room, Harry had stopped brooding and chuckling. Ron looked at him and nodded. "All sorted, mate?"

"Not by a long chalk," Harry admitted, "but it's better than it was-- better than it's been for long enough!"

"Good." Ron paused a moment, then said, "She's a nice girl, Harry, and she likes you a lot. She also fancies you something rotten. So give over being stubborn and give it a chance, all right?"

Harry knew what Ron meant. He had learned many years ago not to underestimate his friend. Ron's eyes might be guileless, but they missed very little. Behind the big grin was a mind like a steel trap. Harry nodded once more.

The students arrived in the Quiet Lounge to find Professor McCoy, Kurt Wagner and Storm already there. The two men were unpacking a collection of large, paper sacks onto the table. From an assortment of cartons, tubs and foil boxes arose a mingling of aromas unfamiliar to Harry, but extremely tempting. At the sideboard, Storm was busy setting out soft drinks.

McCoy, nicknamed 'Beast' for his furry skin and superhuman strength and agility, turned to the students. "Charles said you all deserved something special tonight, so we sent out. Hope everyone likes Chinese."

Ron's stomach gave an audible growl. Hermione glared and whacked Ron lightly on the arm, just as Sam's stomach followed suit. Hermione and Rahne shared a sympathetic glance.

Kurt laughed. "Come on, Hank," said the man they called Nightcrawler. "Let's leave the kids to it before those two faint from hunger!"

The adults withdrew. It appeared that everyone did like Chinese food, even Harry and Ron, who had never tried it before. The chopsticks were another matter, however, causing a certain amount of affectionate amusement among the Americans as the Hogwarts trio tried to master them. Of all people, Hermione cracked first, losing her patience and transfiguring her chopsticks into a fork and spoon. Harry persevered, but Ron picked up the trick very quickly. ("Of course," muttered Hermione, "it's to do with food.")

After everyone was full, and Sam and Ron had scavenged every remaining scrap from the table, the students went into the Rec Room. This being Saturday night, most of the other students were in the TV Lounge, watching a video. Sam and Ron promptly descended on the video games console. Hermione, who thought video games were boring, found herself sitting a little apart, and was mildly surprised when Dani sat beside her. They watched the play for a time, then Dani said, "Hermione, just in case everyone else forgets, I want to tell you how incredible you guys were! If you hadn't been covering our backs, those mercs would have taken us down one by one. So, thanks, we owe you."

Hermione shook her head. "It was a team effort, Dani. But, I must say, I hadn't realised what you all could do! I mean, you'd shown us a bit of your talents, but to see you in action was just superb!" She paused a moment. "Dani, I've got something to say, too. I just want to thank you all for everything. Whatever happens tomorrow, you've done your very best to make us feel welcome here, and we won't forget you."

"Do you think you'll have to go back?" asked Dani.

"I don't know. Professor McGonagall will want to bring us home. She's a bit of a worrier and a stickler for rules and everything. Dumbledore's different, though. In the past, the three of us have got up to...well, we've told you some of it. We should have been expelled, but Dumbledore always decided that the reasons we'd done things were more important than what we'd actually done. So, we'll just have to keep our fingers crossed."

Impulsively, Dani touched Hermione's arm. "I - we - don't want you to go. If you are sent back, we're gonna be so mad at Professor X! But, he knows that. Anyway, Logan's behind you, and if your Professor Dumbledore is as smart as you say he is, he won't go up against Wolverine. Apart from that, there's those two to think about." Dani nodded to where Harry and Kitty were sitting together, fingers entwined, watching the game. "They're right on the edge of something special together. If you have to go home tomorrow..."

"I know. If it were anyone but Harry, something would have happened by now. But, he's been through so much, and he's so alone."

"Well, if you stay, and if they still don't say anything to each other, you and I will just have to take care of it, Hermione!"

While their friends plotted, Harry and Kitty sat silently together. Nestled against Harry, Kitty's mind drifted into the past. Today had been her first time as team leader in a combat situation, and she felt reflective. It hadn't been so very long ago that she was just an ordinary girl.

She had been thirteen-and-a-half years old, a straight-A student, popular and a cheerleader, when everything changed. Kitty had wakened cold and uncomfortable one bright spring morning to find herself staring up at the underside of her bed. She was unaccountably lying on the floor amid the dust bunnies and discarded magazines!

Without thinking, she jerked to a sitting position. Instead of cracking her head on the bottom of her bed, she was sitting, head and shoulders above the coverlet, butt planted on the floor and the rest of her somehow in and through the bed. Her cry of terror brought her parents running. She burst into hysterics, leapt out of the bed and flung herself into her mother's arms. Mercifully, Kitty was solid again. She and her family agreed that whatever it was, they would keep it a secret and act as if nothing had happened.

The next day, though, they had visitors. Professor Charles Xavier and Dr. Jean Grey said they had something to tell Kitty about herself. It was then that Kitty learned about Mutants, those other people in the world with abilities like hers.

Professor Xavier told her about the school he ran in upper New York state, a school for Mutants, where they could learn to use their powers and be safe from people who wanted to enslave or destroy them. He asked if Kitty would like to go to his school. There was no hurry to decide, he said. He left a number and the promise that, whatever her decision, if she ever needed help, he would do whatever he could.

Kitty's family talked late into the night and decided that Kitty should stay home. Her Mutant ability didn't involve any physical changes so it should be easy to hide. Kitty had wanted a normal life, with school, friends, college and all the rest. Her mom called Professor Xavier the next day, thanked him for his offer, but declined his help. She said she would keep in touch.

For a year, everything was fine. Kitty started dating a boy named Kenny. He was an honor student, like her, and quarterback of the football team. He was a blond, blue-eyed, fresh-faced, all-American kid. Kitty adored Kenny with all her heart.

Then, it happened. Kitty had arranged to meet Kenny and their friends at the library to work on a project for school. She had gotten a little held up, so, as she neared the building, she saw them all waiting for her at the top of the steps. Waving happily, she glanced to right and left, and began to run across the street. A sedan roared out of a side street at around 60 and bore down on her. There was no time to dodge: Kitty reacted instinctively and the car shot straight through her to screech to a halt a few yards down the street.

The driver was too drunk to believe what he had seen, but sober enough to realize he'd been lucky. He burned rubber out of there. Kitty was left standing in the middle of the street, looking up at her friends as they stared down at her. From the top of the stairs, they'd seen everything; there was no chance Kitty could bluff her way out of it.

Kenny was the first to react. That was what hurt Kitty most, what still made her cry into her pillow, every so often. In terrible slow motion, Kitty remembered him raising his hand to point at her with fear and hatred in his eyes. His mouth stretched wide. "MUTIE!" he yelled. "She's a Mutie!"

The others took up the cry. Kitty ran blindly, desperately, sobbing as she went, making her way home by pure instinct. There, she locked herself in her room and cried until she had no more tears. The next day, Kitty left for Xavier's.

Her parents still loved her. They called her every couple days and wrote her every week. They visited some weekends; they were due this coming Friday, and Kitty couldn't wait to introduce them to Harry.

Kitty's train of thought was interrupted by an outcry from the others.

The Rec Room had been the scene of Ron's best and worst moments at Xavier's. He had tried to use the remote control of the TV like a magic wand, finally discarding it and using his wand, instead. His attempts to work the CD player and game console had caused immense hilarity. After Kitty had explained to him how CDs worked, Ron had concluded that by combining a Legis Arcanum spell for reading hidden writing and a Sonorous charm, he could make a CD play without the player!

The games console had provided a different set of challenges. For a long time, Ron had treated the game sprites like Wizard Chessmen, trying to give them verbal orders. Now, however, there was a burst of cheering, and Roberto was pounding Ron's back.

Rahne cried out in protest, "Would you look at that? Ron, ye've just ripped ma heart out!"

"Don't worry, Rahne," called Hermione, "he does that to all the girls."

The incident became a kind of signal. The group began to separate as the various couples went in search of some private space. Kitty suddenly realized that, tonight, she didn't want to sit in the Quiet Lounge and talk. She felt restless. "Harry, walk with me in the arboretum?"

"OK, sounds nice," said Harry.

The arboretum was an enormous, Victorian-style conservatory, four floors high, covering half the width of the back of the mansion before extending out into the gardens. It had been built by the Professor's great grandfather to house his collection of exotic plants. Subsequent generations had added to the collection and lovingly maintained the great structure. Sleek, modern air-conditioning and humidifiers had replaced the old, lead pipes and furnaces, but there were still the galleries and wrought-iron staircases, and the marble-floored mezzanine where Storm (who was a creature of the sky and open spaces) preferred to teach her classes. It was a favourite play space for younger students when the weather was bad, and a trysting place for older ones.

As they walked, Kitty tried to decide about Harry.

It had been lust at first sight, Kitty was honest enough to admit--he was so damned hot! Then, she had gotten to know him, and decided he was kind, smart, brave and had a wonderful wry sense of humor. He obviously liked her, too. But, was she ready to do anything about it? Harry was sensitive, and, if she screwed it up, she might lose a friendship she valued.

She wished Marie were here. She could have talked to Marie--gotten it all out. Marie would have advised and supported her. Kitty thought about asking Hermione, who surely knew Harry well, what to do about him. But, Kitty didn't want to impose on Hermione. She'd already badgered the poor girl into telling her about Harry's abortive relationship with Cho Chang (more than Harry had told her, anyway, and if Kitty ever got to Hogwarts, that bitch was toast!). Hermione knew how Kitty felt; she was too smart and too protective of Harry to miss the clues.

Harry! Every time Kitty closed her eyes, Harry's face floated before her, framed in that wild black hair, with the gentle smile and the look in those magnetic eyes that she knew--she knew!--was only for her. She realized she had made her decision. Kitty cared deeply for Harry Potter--maybe even loved him-and, in her heart of hearts, she believed he felt the same way about her. Somehow, right now, she was going to let him know how she felt.

Harry had to decide what to do about Kitty. The young male animal part of him already knew what it wanted. It had done so ever since Kitty had come across the Quiet Lounge on their first day here, moving with a grace that Harry found fascinating. He could picture her face at will, with its perfect, delicate cheekbones, pert nose, full lips and clear, honest, hazel eyes.

Then there was the Kitty with whom he had talked long into the nights. Open, warm-hearted and as bright as Hermione, Kitty had been hurt; he had sensed that even before she told him her story. Her heart had retreated like a frightened animal (if Harry ever got his hands on this Kenny...), but she obviously had come to trust Harry enough to begin to reopen her heart--and that scared him.

Harry's only experience of an intimate relationship with a girl was his awkward and farcical romance with Cho Chang. Too shy to approach her in his Fourth Year, he had been overshadowed by the dashing Cedric Diggory. Then, Cedric had died as Harry watched helplessly--a stupid, wasteful, empty death and one more point in Harry's long, bitter score against Voldemort. Cho Chang had pursued Harry after that, but she had only wanted to share her grief for Cedric. What was that song Rahne was always playing-- "Tainted Love"? All Cho Chang had offered Harry was tainted love.

But, now, there was Kitty, her smile, her mile-a-minute chatter, her quick wit, and the special warmth in her eyes when she looked at him. She often touched him casually, but every touch was electric. The feel of her body against him lingered, as did the feel of her lips, however light, on his cheek. Harry realised that she was not just opening her heart to him--she was offering it. Vulnerable, a little scared, but sincere and yearning, that was his Kitty. For now, his heart belonged to Kitty Pryde, and, when the moment came, he would tell her so.

As Harry and Kitty walked together, Harry felt an odd sensation; always, when he played Quidditch, the world narrowed down, so there was just him, the sky and the golden Snitch. He felt perfectly balanced, at peace. Now, here, he realised, there was just him, the scented air of the arboretum, and Kitty, so close by his side. He felt the same sense of rightness.

They stopped under the spreading branches of some tree Harry didn't recognise and turned to face each other. They had both mentally rehearsed speeches for this moment, but all their carefully chosen words flew out of their heads.

Kitty reached up and traced the zigzag pattern of Harry's scar with one gentle finger. "It's part of you, Harry," she breathed, "but it's not all of you. Don't let it dictate who you are."

The appeal in her clear eyes, her soft mouth, was too much for Harry. He pulled her to him, and she slid her arms around his neck. As he bent to her, she whispered his name, her breath gently fanning his face. Then, for a long time, there was nothing except her body, so alive against him, and her lips, sweetly demanding, on his.

After a small eternity, they parted a little, still holding each other close. Kitty sighed, "I love you, Harry."

"I love you, too," he replied softly. "Kitty, I..."

"Shh!" she told him, "Talk later. After you made me wait a week for this, you are not getting away with just one kiss!"

Harry chuckled, then swung Kitty up in his arms, farther into the shadow of the tree. She gave a little cry of joy, exulting in his wiry strength. They sank to the grass beneath the tree and kissed again, more deeply this time. It was the beginning of a long, slow discovery of each other.

Chapter 6: Machinations and Meetings

Marie woke to an unfamiliar but anxious face bending over her. "Are you all right, my dear?" a woman wearing a white hat asked.

The woman stepped back as Rogue pushed up to a sitting position. Marie found herself lying on a bed in what appeared to be a hospital. "Yeah, fine, I think," Marie replied cautiously. "Who are you?"

"I am Madam Pomfrey, resident Healer at the school. You are in the Infirmary. Professor Hagrid and your friends brought you in a few moments ago. You fainted, and I was about to examine you."

"Uh-uh," Marie said firmly, crossing her arms. "You can't do that because--"

"Don't worry, Miss D'Ancanto. I am well aware of your particular talent." Madam Pomfrey raised her hands. She was wearing cotton gloves. She studied Marie, saying, "Your colour is coming back, my dear. I am sure it was simply a faint, after all, rather than the coma your young man feared. I think there is nothing wrong with you that a good meal and a night's sleep will not cure. Wait here a moment."

Marie decided that her "young man" would be Bobby. Her collapse must have been brought on by the sudden, complete withdrawal of Jack's persona. Usually, the drain was gradual, so Rogue's body could adjust. The wrench of immediate separation had thrown her a little, that was it; Rogue was not the fainting type!

Madam Pomfrey stepped aside when Bobby dashed into the room and threw his arms around Marie. For a while, nothing else mattered to either of them. Soon after, Madam Pomfrey pronounced Marie fit to return to her House.

Ginny was waiting by the door to accompany Marie and Bobby back to Gryffindor Tower. She didn't say anything, just hugged Marie hard. In the Common Room, they were greeted with warm applause. Food had been sent up, but the others had waited before eating. To her astonishment, Marie found herself caught up in a bear hug from Peter. He released her, looking a little awkward, before sitting down to eat with single-minded intensity. The rest followed suit.

Marie asked about the twins and learned they had already gone to bed. After the older students finished their meal, they moved closer to the fire. Marie nestled happily against Bobby on the couch. Ginny, with a complete disregard for decorum, shoved Peter down into one of the big armchairs and climbed onto his lap. Neville and Lavender sat very near each other on another couch. Nobody spoke for a while.

Then, Bobby said, "I gotta hand it to you. You guys were awesome out there! Isn't that so, Petey?"

"Gryffindors kick ass!" rumbled Peter. He would have said more, but Ginny chose that moment to cover his mouth with hers.

Neville smiled. "Couldn't have done it without you three, Bob!"

Impulsively, Lavender jumped from the couch and crouched in front of Marie, looking up into her eyes. "Marie, your power is so amazing. I mean, everyone dreams of being invincible like Peter, and Bob's power is really incredible. But, you--that's not a power, that's a talent. Now I know why you have to be so careful around everyone. It must be like a curse for you! I saw how you looked--how you had to fight the creature to stay yourself. If I'd realised, I'd never have let you."

The unflappable English girl was close to sympathetic tears. Marie started misting up herself as she leaned forward. "It's OK, sugah," Marie soothed, the emotional drawl back in her voice. "Ah'm one tough cookie. It's all good, y'hear? We're here, an' safe. Tha's what counts!"

The two girls looked at each other for a moment, then Lavender went back to sit beside Neville, who put his hand on her shoulder, squeezed slightly, and left it there.

Just then, Professor McGonagall entered the room. 'Uh-oh', thought Marie, 'here it comes. We blew it. Back to Xavier's on the next portkey.'

"Don't get up," instructed the Professor, "this evening's activities must have left you all exhausted. Miss Weasley, in particular, looks far too depleted to move." Rogue smiled at what looked like a twinkle in the professor's eye.

McGonagall turned stern when she addressed Neville. "Professor Hagrid has already furnished me with a full report based on what you told him, so there is no need to recount the evening's events. You are aware, of course, that the Forest is off limits to students, and that you were out after curfew? In addition, you endangered not only your fellow students, but also our guests. What have you to say?"

Neville stood, and looked the Professor straight in the eye. "We were hoping to get the twins back quickly and safely. It didn't work out that way. I'm sorry. I take full responsibility."

"Hmm. I note, Mr Longbottom, that you refrain from mentioning that Kylie and Jason Barrett were the victims of a cruel prank by two young Slytherins. I have spoken to Professor Snape, and the boys will be punished.

"As to your taking responsibility on yourself, must I remind you that Miss Brown, as Prefect, must also bear her share? I am forced to take twenty points from each of you."

Professor McGonagall regarded the Mutants. "As for you three, I find myself irresistibly reminded of the students you are temporarily replacing. This is precisely the kind of hare-brained escapade Mr Potter and his friends would fling themselves into. Do you have anything to say?"

Marie faced her as directly as Neville had. "Professor, these guys have gone out of their way--done everything they can--to make us feel part of this House and this school. So, when they needed our help, they got it. If that was wrong, I'm sorry. But, whether you're a Gryffindor or an X-Man, the rules are the same. We take care of our own."

McGonagall looked at her for a long moment. Her expression did not change, but, this time, Rogue was certain about the twinkle behind the glasses. "Well spoken, Miss D'Ancanto! Despite your short stay with us, you and your colleagues have shown loyalty, friendship and courage in the best tradition of Gryffindor House. I am left with no alternative but to award the three of you twenty points each. Now, I suggest you all take yourselves off to bed."

Professor McGonagall departed. Ginny gave Peter one last deep, voracious kiss, then slipped off his lap, said good night, and went upstairs. Peter levered himself upright and made for the stairs, calling "'night" over his shoulder. Bobby and Marie withdrew to a corner for a parting kiss, then Bobby left. Marie looked over to see if Lavender were heading her way, but Lavender and Neville were still on the couch, talking quietly to each other, but not so quietly that Rogue's quick ears could miss the conversation.

"Neville, you were wonderful out there!" Lavender praised.

"Don't be silly, Lavender! I would have been all over the place without you. You were a tower of strength, and it was you who spotted that creature."

"I never knew you were so brave."

"Brave? I was scared to death. If you hadn't been there..."

"You should believe in yourself, more. I believe in you, Neville."

Rogue tiptoed to the stairs. At the foot of them, she glanced back to see Neville draw Lavender into his arms. Marie grinned.

That night, in a hidden room hundreds of miles away, Narcissa Malfoy, Number Two among the Knights of Walpurgis, took her seat at the round table. She stared through the eye-slits of her black, silk mask at eleven other similarly disguised figures who sat at the table.

"I speak for Number One," she said firmly, indicating the empty chair to her right.

The absent Number One, Narcissa's husband, Lucius Malfoy, was currently languishing in Azkaban Prison, put there by the traitor Dumbledore and his lickspittle Order of the Phoenix. Lucius, like generations of Malfoys before him, was the head of the most ancient secret society in the Wizarding world.

Centuries ago, the Knights of Walpurgis had vowed to continue the work of Salazar Slytherin. Their original aim had been to preserve the purity of bloodlines against the encroaching dilution of Half-bloods and Mudbloods. Over time, the group's aims had changed, first to ensure Pureblood control of the Wizarding world, then to establish Wizard domination over Muggles.

A Malfoy had always led the Knights of Walpurgis. By tradition, only Number One learned the identities of the other twelve members. Narcissa knew only that some of those sitting around the table were former Death Eaters; others had once opposed Voldemort's ambitions. The only thing all Knights had in common was pureblood lineage from the oldest Wizarding families.

"The situation is becoming intolerable," Narcissa declared. "Voldemort stays in hiding whilst our enemies increase in power and number. It is time for bold strokes!"

There was a stir around the table. Some flinched, but more heads nodded in agreement. Years ago, the Knights of Walpurgis had lent their influence to the rising dark star who called himself Lord Voldemort. The Knights had seen Voldemort as a cat's-paw, a figurehead behind which to further their own plans. But, they had encountered an unexpected obstacle--the child called Harry Potter. Voldemort had fallen.

Now, he was back, and beginning another rise to power. The Knights of Walpurgis still supported him, but, this time, with more reservations. They had seen the wisdom of their earlier decision to remain in the shadows. Voldemort did not know of their existence.

Number Three spoke. "The Dark Lord is paralysed by fear--fear of Dumbledore, but, most of all, fear of the Potter boy. Every attempt by Voldemort to dispose of the boy has ended in failure. Potter leads a charmed life, and after he grows into manhood, there are many who will look to him for leadership."

Number Seven added, "Dumbledore remains a formidable opponent, but if Potter is allowed to become all he might be, he could become unstoppable!"

Narcissa nodded. "Potter must be our main objective; the boy is the key to all our plans."

"He is to be killed, then?" asked Number Ten.

"Not necessarily. Certainly, if the boy were to die, Lord Voldemort would recover from his fear and once again become useful to us. But, consider this: It will eventually become necessary to dispose of that pathetic, mad Half-blood. If Harry Potter could be brought over to our side, many wizards who now oppose our aims would flock to us. The boy is a natural leader, as charismatic as Voldemort, and he does not need fear to command loyalty."

"Potter's mother was a Mudblood!" Number Four protested.

"No matter. Voldemort is only a Half-blood. In any event, Potter's father came from old and pure Wizarding stock. I do not intend to make the boy one of us, merely to use him."

"And how will you do that?" demanded Number Four.

"Bring the boy to me. I am sure I can find the means to...persuade him." Narcissa moved sinuously in her seat. The black robe she wore parted a little, revealing more than a glimpse of snowy flesh and soft curves.

Number Six laughed. "You would seduce the boy?" Her voice was that of an aging, imperious and aristocratic woman.

Narcissa shrugged. "Why not? It would not be so unpleasant; he is a handsome youth. He is also sixteen years old. To a boy of that age, sex is a far greater motivator than either wealth or power. An experienced woman has much more to offer him than any simpering, virgin schoolgirl! A night in my bed should gain his cooperation. Later, as he acquires a taste for power, he will desire it for its own sake."

"This plan is all very well," put in Number Five, "but it depends upon us having Potter in our grasp. My sources tell me he is no longer at Hogwarts. Rumour has it, he is in America."

"I, too, have sources at Hogwarts!" snapped Narcissa. "While there are certainly Americans at the school--they call themselves 'Mutants'--it does not follow that Potter is in America. I believe, as my sources do, that Dumbledore would not send Potter beyond his reach. Depend upon it: Potter is somewhere in that castle!"

Narcissa leaned forward, eyes blazing. "Now, here are Number One's instructions. We all have people loyal to us. Our forces must believe that they have been ordered by Voldemort to raid the Castle and locate Potter. If they can take him alive, well and good; they must bring him here to me. If he dies, so be it.

"At the same time, they should try to capture one of the Americans. My sources tell me these beings have strange abilities. If Dumbledore is recruiting allies, we should learn about them.

"It goes without saying that none of this must reach Voldemort's ears." Narcissa stood, wrapping her robes crisply about her. "Be ready in three weeks' time."

To receive an owl on Sunday morning was not unusual enough to cause comment among Draco Malfoy's housemates, but rare enough to cause him some momentary concern. The letter was addressed in his mother's sprawling italic hand, rather than his father's crisp copperplate. What did that impossible woman want now? Draco opened the letter.

My darling Draco (That settled it; she had some silly errand for him.),

Your father and I agree (Now, that's a first.) that Potter must still be in the Castle somewhere. We need you to keep your eyes and ears open to see if you can find out where he is (Yes, mother, I've been doing that all week.).

You should try asking some of those Gryffindors. The Weasley girl must surely know where her brother and his gang are hiding. If you get her angry or upset enough, she might blurt it out (Upset her? With that seven-foot American gorilla wrapped round her? How much have you insured me for?).

You must be aware that a Certain Person is anxious to know Potter's whereabouts. I will say no more than that a little surprise is being planned. You must also find out all you can about these Americans (And get myself killed in the process? I think not.).

On another matter, my darling boy (Oh, no, here we go…), I'm disappointed to see that you no longer mention dear Pansy as often as you used to. I do hope you two have not had a falling out? (We'd be fine if the silly tart could keep her sweaty hands to herself.) You know how important it is to your father and I that you make a suitable marriage after you leave school. Do try to be pleasant to Pansy; she is from a respectable pureblood family, after all. I will write to her mother to assure her all is well.

Now, remember what I have said. It is important that you find Potter. Do not fail me.

Love,

Mama

Draco scowled. Damn and blast the woman! Let her write whatever fantasy she wanted to the Parkinsons. Under parental pressure, Draco had endured Pansy Parkinson for five years, now. Then, just before Christmas, the chit had attempted to get familiar, indeed intimate, with him. He had found the experience nauseating. Draco had begun to suspect that his tastes did not lie in the direction of girls.

Well, he would find Potter if he could, for his own reasons if not his mother's (or a Certain Person's, for that matter). Crabbe and Goyle could be relied on, and Pansy had better help--or else!

In his private moments, Draco often wished things had gone differently in that first year. If Potter had come to Slytherin, Draco might have had at least one worthy friend. It was that thought that inflamed his hatred and bitterness more than any other.

Ginny was alone in the Library, waiting for Peter to join her. He had wanted to find out how Muggles and Wizards managed to live without conflict. She supposed that this Professor X hoped Mutants would be able to do the same. In preparation, Ginny had taken down some Histories, and had just found the right chapter in one of them, when she heard some people approach her table.

She looked up; there were Malfoy, Crabbe, Goyle and, slightly behind the others, Pansy Parkinson. There was going to be trouble. Ginny kept her hand near her wand.

"Well, now," Malfoy drawled, "here's little Ginny Weasley, the Gryffindor good-time girl! All on her own, too. What's the matter? Run out of boys, have we? Gone through all of Gryffindor and half of Ravenclaw already, has this one," Draco pointed out to Crabbe and Goyle, who sniggered on cue. "And all because she can't have Harry Potter! Well, when you're ready to start on Slytherin, let me know…"

"That's enough, Draco," said Pansy, quietly. "You're going too far."

"What's this? Girls sticking together? I wish I may live to see it! Now, shut up, Pansy. As for you, Weasley, cat got your tongue? Or not so brave without big brother Ronnie around?"

"I don't need Ron to deal with you, Malfoy!" snarled Ginny, her temper well and truly up.

"That's good, because poor old Ron's hiding out with Potter, isn't he? No doubt both of them are holed up somewhere in a little room, fumbling around with Granger. What a picture!"

Ginny's eyes blazed; then, suddenly, she grinned. A gigantic shadow fell over Malfoy and his cronies, and a bass voice inquired, "Is there a problem, here?"

Crabbe and Goyle both leapt a foot in the air and landed running. They vanished in seconds. Pansy erupted with laughter. She leaned against a bookcase, clutched her middle, and howled till tears ran down her face.

Malfoy turned to find his exit blocked by the massive figure of Peter Rasputin. He stepped back, bumped into the table, and turned again, directly into the tip of Ginny's wand. "Piss off out of it, Malfoy," Ginny said sweetly. Draco, between a rock and a hard place, sucked in his breath and inched crabwise between the pair until he could bolt for the door.

Ginny aimed her wand at Pansy. Pansy raised her hands. "OK, peace! Draco dragged me into this. I didn't know he was going to be a sod. For what it's worth, I'm sorry for what he said to you."

Ginny seemed to struggle with herself for a moment. "Oh...go away!"

Pansy nodded and turned to leave, then turned back. "Just one thing," she said hesitantly, "wherever Harry is--he is all right, isn't he?"

"He's fine!" snapped Ginny. "Why? What's it to you?"

Pansy spoke in a tone that dripped bitterness. "Why, Ginevra, did you think you were the only one to have feelings for Harry Potter?" She turned, and almost ran from the Library.

Ginny stared after her in wonder for a moment, then smiled at Peter. "Thanks for rescuing me. How can anyone so big move so quietly?"

Peter lowered himself into a chair next to her. It creaked alarmingly, but held. He grinned. "Practice, babe. Anyway, I was rescuing them, not you. You looked as if you were about to turn them all into frogs."

"What's wrong with that?"

Peter grimaced. "Frogs breed awful fast, hon. I'd sooner have four people who tick me off than about four thousand really irritating frogs!"

Ginny laughed, then a thought occurred to her. "Peter," she asked anxiously, "how much did you hear?"

"All of it," he replied evenly.

"Oh," Ginny said, in a small voice.

Peter reached out and captured her tiny hands in his huge ones. "Ginny--no, look at me--it's not important, babe. I know Jerko Malfoy was exaggerating. So, you've had boyfriends—no surprise there. After I'm gone, you'll have others. It doesn't matter, Ginny. Here and now, we're together, and I'm glad.

Ginny sighed. "I like having a boyfriend, someone a bit special to share things with and have a laugh. I grew up with six brothers, so I understand boys better than girls. We Weasleys are a physical lot, too. I like to cuddle and kiss.

"But, after a while, the boys all start to get serious. I'm fifteen, I don't want to think about that right now! So, I dump them, if they don't dump me, and find somebody new. It makes some people gossip. That's why I told you everything, straight off. But, I was still worried that what Malfoy said would make you think badly of me!"

Peter shook his head. "Never happen, babe. There is something I do want to hear about." He looked intently at her. "Harry," he said. Ginny's heart turned over, and she stared at Peter, her mind in a whirl.

"Just tell me. All of it," Peter urged.

She told him how she had first met Harry, and been very taken with him, when she was ten years old. She'd been proud and thrilled when her brother became the best friend of The Boy Who Lived. Most of all, she had felt such gratitude when Harry and Ron opened the Chamber of Secrets to rescue her. "Of course," Ginny admitted, "I realised, later, that Harry would have done the same for anyone in danger--even Pansy-bloody-Parkinson. That's just who Harry is."

But, last year, Ginny told Peter, she had finally decided to stop worshipping an increasingly remote Harry. Instead, she decided to focus on other boys. "I thought I was over Harry, I really did. Then, Marie said he'd taken up with this Kitty, and it went through me like a knife! As long as I made myself believe Harry wasn't interested in girls or romance, it was all right, but now..." Ginny raised pained eyes to Peter. "I'm so sorry, this must be awful for you."

"Not even a little bit," Peter soothed. "Like I said, this is here and now. Harry has Kitty; you have me. Unless…you want to stop seeing me?" Ginny shook her head fiercely to Peter's evident relief.

"Ginny," he continued, "after this term, I'll be gone. Let's not kid ourselves. We've got till Easter to be together, have fun and all the other stuff. After that, we'll probably write, maybe even visit, but we'll both have to move on. With any luck, we'll stay good friends.

"But, Harry will be back. Babe, he's gonna come back different than he was before--maybe less lonely, maybe more savvy. Don't give up on him, Ginny. You're a special lady, and he's gotta know that. You tell me Harry's smart, so if a big, dumb lug like me can see you for who you are, he has to be able to!"

Ginny freed her hands from his, and cupped Peter's face in them. "If a girl were looking for a husband, she could do a lot worse than you, Piotr Nicolayevitch!"

"Hey! I told you, my Dad only calls me that when I'm in trouble!"

"Well, you're going to be in an awful lot of trouble if you don't come here and kiss me right now!"

He sat down beside her to share a kiss that was not their usual greedy fare. This kiss was soft, lingering, and very tender. New vistas were opening for Ginny, though it would be a while before she could fully appreciate them.

Behind the row of bookshelves, Professor Snape moved silently away. He had a meeting to attend, and what he had just heard and seen would strongly influence his contribution.

Professor Charles Xavier, Scott Summers and Logan arrived in Professor Dumbledore's study by Portkey, promptly at three that afternoon. Xavier seemed unmoved by the experience, but Scott looked slightly dazed, and Logan muttered, "That was one helluva ride !"

Dumbledore came forward and greeted Xavier warmly. The two men had much in common, and were becoming friends as well as colleagues. Xavier introduced his staff members, and Dumbledore, in turn, introduced Professors McGonagall and Snape, who rose from their seats to shake hands. Dumbledore noticed a slight flicker in Wolverine's eyes when they exchanged greetings, but Dumbledore said nothing.

After they were all settled comfortably around the fire and tea had been served ("Ah!" smiled Xavier, "Earl Grey!"), the meeting began. "I feel I must commence with an apology," Xavier said. "I have failed to keep your students as safe as I intended. At the same time, I must thank you, Albus, for sending me three such fine and brave young people. Harry, Hermione and Ron are a credit to your school."

Dumbledore smiled. "I must echo your sentiments, Charles. I would have preferred not to have to report the incident in our Forbidden Forest. Yet, Miss D'Ancanto, Mr Drake and Mr Rasputin have shown a degree of courage and skill that reflects well on their teachers."

"Nevertheless," interjected Professor McGonagall, "proud as I am of my Gryffindors, and as much as I admire your students' bravery and loyalty, Charles, I must say my fears have been confirmed. We should consider calling an end to this exchange and bringing the children home."

"I agree," put in Cyclops. "All these kids have enough dangers of their own to face, without getting mixed up in each others' troubles."

"They don't see it that way, Cyke," said Logan. "Their friends' problems are theirs, and they're gonna help out if they can. Kitty told us she tried to get Harry to take the others back inside, but he point-blank refused. He's a born leader, and the others take their cue from him."

"Miss D'Ancanto is equally headstrong," remarked Snape, "and a natural leader. Mr Longbottom and Miss Brown tried to dissuade our guests from joining them, but, again, to no avail.

"You must understand, Professor Summers, these individuals are no longer children, but young adults. They are quite capable of deciding for themselves where their loyalties and duties lie, as Professor Logan says."

"Just Logan, Sev. I ain't no professor. What I know, they don't teach in regular schools."

"Ah, you're from the 'school of hard knocks', I take it?" Snape replied.

"Hard as you like, bub. I can take 'em or give 'em out. Your choice!"

Snape succumbed to a rare grin. "I have no doubt whatsoever of that, Logan. My name, by the way, is 'Severus'. Do try to say the whole thing." Logan nodded and chuckled.

Scott was surprised, and gazed at the two men for a moment. On the face of it, the tall, ascetic Wizard, pale-faced and decidedly acidic in manner, had nothing in common with the stocky, rugged Mutant with his weathered features and rough-spoken ways. Nothing, that is, until you studied their eyes, and realized that both men had experienced much during their lives. These two understood each other.

"It should also be said," Dumbledore remarked to Xavier, "that you were completely honest with us regarding the potential dangers in the scheme. You did point out that you had enemies, this Hellfire Club among them. You also made it clear that enemy attacks are far from predictable."

Xavier pointed out, "You revealed the dangers of Wizarding life, though at the time, it seemed that the greatest threat might come from this Lord Voldemort. Neither of us could have foreseen the set of circumstances that prompted our students to go into the Forest."

"That is true," said McGonagall, "but, on the other hand, Charles, do you not think that the visit to this 'shopping mall' should have been either cancelled or, at least, more closely supervised?"

Xavier spread his hands. "What was I to do, Professor? I had promised my students the trip, and I make a point of keeping promises. Among youngsters of this age, adult supervision would be bitterly resented. 'Hanging at the mall' is a common Saturday pastime for American teenagers, and I will not deprive my students of such simple pleasures.

"I could, of course, have forbidden your students to join their classmates. But, that would have left Harry, Hermione and Ron feeling abandoned. My regular students would have been disappointed not to share the activity with their new friends. At least two of my students, Kitty Pryde and Danielle Moonstar, made a point of asking that your students be included in the outing. It seems they were planning a surprise for Hermione--a small makeover."

"Makeover?" inquired Snape.

"It's a girl thing," explained Scott, with a grin. "They get their nails, hair and makeup done in order to look glamorous. Works, too! I didn't see Hermione till after the ruckus, but she still looked great. More to the point," Scott continued soberly, "we've got to ask ourselves: Are the risks to the kids worth anything they might gain from this exchange?"

"Damn right, they are!" growled Logan. Scott flinched; he knew that tone--Wolverine was taking no prisoners, today. Logan insisted, "They've gained something big, already. These kids are bonding, folks! I was kinda worried about the whole Wizard-Mutant thing, thought it might be oil and water. I was wrong.

"The kids pitched right in. They all worked like hell to make it happen, and they succeeded. After just a week, both sets are working like teams. There's no jealousy, no rivalry--they trust each other. At the mall, when they were in danger, they didn't crack or let each other down.

"Do you guys realize what that means? We Mutants expect to be persecuted by ordinary humans--Muggles, right? Yeah, well, here we have a bunch of people who not only accept Mutants but like 'em! Our kids finally discovered non-Mutants they can trust. And, the Hogwarts kids learned they're not so alone, either.

Logan shook his head. "Scott, Professor McGonagall, I understand where you're coming from on this. But, these kids are building bridges, here--not just for themselves, but also for both our kinds. It'd be a cryin' shame to stop everything just as it's coming together!"

"Logan is absolutely right," Snape said hotly. "I, too, had my concerns about opening Hogwarts to strangers. As Wizards, we know better than to reveal our existence to Muggles. I was skeptical about this exchange."

"The young Americans have caused me to re-examine our Wizarding prejudices. Our community has turned in on itself. We run a very real risk of stagnating, even becoming decadent. It is unwise to ignore the world around us, even though many among us resent the new thoughts and ideas we gain each year from our Muggle-born intake. As one of the most ancient branches of humanity, we should not lose the opportunity to forge a friendship with the newest. It is an opportunity to be grasped, not abandoned."

Scott sighed. "You're right, of course. There is a lot to be gained. I guess I'm a worrier. But, you know why, Logan, and so does the Professor."

"What of the students?" asked McGonagall. "Do they wish to continue this experiment?"

Xavier smiled, and turned to McGonagall. "It seems that there is an attraction, indeed a budding romance, between Harry Potter and one of my students, Kitty Pryde. Kitty has had a difficult time in the past, and is emotionally rather withdrawn and fragile. For whatever reason, she has begun to trust Harry."

Dumbledore looked pleased. "This is excellent news. Harry has become increasingly lonely of late. A loving, uncomplicated relationship with a suitable young woman will be good for him. I take it that Miss Pryde is such a person?"

"Kitty is warm, intelligent, very pretty, and she walks through walls. Is that...suitable?"

"Oh, eminently, eminently!" Dumbledore laughed.

"We have a similar situation, here," added Professor McGonagall. "Our Miss Weasley appears to have taken your Mr Rasputin rather under her wing--" McGonagall broke off to glare at Snape, who had released a sharp bark of laughter.

"My apologies, Professor, but given that Mr Rasputin is a clear 18 inches taller than Miss Weasley, your words evoke a ridiculous mental image. " Snape shook his head ruefully. "I witnessed, quite inadvertently, a scene this morning which increases the relevance of your point. Up until now, Miss Weasley's relationships have been rather shallow. She seems to have found more meaning in the relationship with Mr Rasputin. To my mind, this could be a great step forward in Ginevra Weasley's development as a person. To part them now would be a retrograde step."

In the end, there could be only one decision. Scott and Professor McGonagall argued for caution without real conviction. Xavier and Dumbledore were determined to maintain the arrangement, and, with the backing of Snape and Wolverine, they carried the day.

Dumbledore sat back, steepling his fingers. "We have some administrative points to consider, but I feel a short break is in order. There are light refreshments on the sideboard. Do help yourselves. Charles, a private word?"

The others moved off. Xavier began a mental conversation of the kind which Dumbledore, a skilled Legilimens, enjoyed.

So, Albus, what do we need to speak about privately?

Something quite unconnected to this meeting, Charles. You recall what I said to you when I first read your staff dossiers?

Yes. You felt that you might have encountered Wolverine previously. I pointed out that his memory currently reaches back only 15 years, but that his mutation means he could be any age from 30 to over 100 years old. Had you met him before?

Indeed. I am now certain that the man you call Wolverine is the very same Sgt Logan with whom I spent a very brisk couple of days during the summer of 1943. Should we mention this to him?

Not now, I think. But, I would be interested to know more. It may be that we can reveal this to him at a more appropriate time.

I will write you an account, Charles. I am sorry Logan does not remember me. We were unable to meet again, as we had agreed, and I owe him a great deal. In particular, a pint of best bitter!

At the sideboard, Professor McGonagall was allowing Scott to pour her another cup of tea. "I cannot honestly say that I am sorry we were outvoted, Professor Summers," she admitted.

"Call me 'Scott'. Technically, I'm not a professor. I do agree with you, though."

"Scott, then," Professor McGonagall looked at this intense, handsome young man and experienced a passing wish to be some years younger. "It does seem that there is a basic...sympathy...between Wizards and Mutants--a kind of immediate rapport."

"Could be. We do all seem to get on, don't we? It may have something to do with vitality. Both Wizards and Mutants seem a lot more—alive--than Muggles."

"You use that word with a degree of familiarity, Scott."

"Yeah, guess I've picked it up from the kids. We needed a one-word way to describe non-Mutant humans. The only other term we had was an insult."

"Flatscan?" Responding to his look of surprise, McGonagall said, "Your Mr Drake used the word during a contretemps with one of our less open-minded students. Given the circumstances, I ignored the matter."

At the other end of the sideboard, Logan and Snape were working their way through the biscuits. "Shame there's only tea to drink," grumbled Logan. "After all that talk, I could use a beer."

"I could Transfigure some beer, I suppose, but I expect it would be thought inappropriate. Pity, I'd relish a glass of beer, myself. You must visit again, soon, Logan. We shall go to the Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade for some serious indulgence." Snape grinned again, his expression as feral as Wolverine's.

The meeting reconvened. Professor Xavier needed to sign consent forms for Marie, Bobby and Peter to join in the Hogsmeade weekends. Dumbledore gave his permission for Harry, Ron and Hermione to train with Wolverine in unarmed combat, tactics and stealth, among other un-Wizardly skills.

There was one final matter. Xavier cleared his throat. "I am aware, Albus, that you have some concerns regarding the apparent mind-link that exists between Harry and Lord Voldemort."

"Yes. I did fear it would enable Voldemort to find Harry, even in America, and have his Death Eaters attack your school."

"He will have a warm welcome, should he try! However, I may have a better solution. I suspect that Harry possesses a powerful, but latent, telepathic capacity of his own. That, allied with an extremely strong will, was what enabled him to resist the White Queen's attack. I should be able to train Harry to shield his mind against almost any invasion and to lock Voldemort out permanently. Do I have your permission to begin this training?"

Dumbledore looked hopeful. "That would be most kind of you, Charles. We have tried to teach Harry Occlumency before, but..."

"There was a clash of personalities," said Snape. "Mr Potter and I are not compatible, I'm afraid."

"Then we will call that settled, unless Harry himself objects," Xavier said eagerly.

"Thank you, Charles. I think that concludes our business. Another cup of tea before you leave? Minerva, would you do the honours?"

After more tea, Dumbledore regarded his three guests. "I do have one more question, a trivial one, really. Can you tell me what, in the context of Portkey travel, would be the significance of the word 'energise'?"

It was touch and go, but Scott managed not to spill his tea.

Chapter 7: All Hell Breaks Loose

Three weeks had passed. It was a Friday afternoon, and the senior students at Xavier's were in philosophy class. Kurt Wagner was trying to explain how notions of good and evil were culturally defined rather than absolute, when he was interrupted.

Attention, please! All students must go to their rooms immediately. Staff and senior students report to the Situation Room, in uniform, in five minutes. This is not a drill!

Xavier's mental voice was calm but commanding. With a cloud of black smoke and a characteristic bamf! of imploding air, Nightcrawler was gone. The students moved purposefully toward their rooms.

Harry and Ron changed quickly. They had grown used to the uniforms, finding them in some ways less restricting than wizard robes. Theirs and Hermione's differed from the standard uniforms in some details; instead of the simple X logo in gold on black, their collar buttons and belt buckles bore golden Gryffindor lions on red, and there was a special holster on the thigh to hold a wand. Wisely, Logan had ordered Ron's a little large for him; under Wolverine's training regime, Ron's frame had gone from merely brawny to positively Herculean. The three had also been given codenames to go with the uniforms: Harry was Hawk, Ron was Hunter and Hermione, Charm.

They met the other students on the landing. Harry spoke quickly to Ariel, "We're not going to have a row about this, are we?"

"God, no! I'd be freaking out if you hadn't turned up! C'mon!"

The Situation Room was deep under the mansion, a large chamber lined with surveillance monitors and communications gear. There were two map tables and a briefing area with chairs. The staff was already there. As the students filed in, Cyclops looked up and spotted the three Hogwarts teenagers. His mouth compressed. Storm put a hand on his arm and shook her head; he looked at her, shrugged and said nothing.

The students took their seats. Professor Xavier sat facing them, his eyes closed. Then he opened them. "Sorry for the delay. I was making sure the younger students were all in the Secure Room.

He cleared his throat. "As you may have guessed, the mansion will shortly be under attack. It appears that our friends in the Hellfire Club have run out of patience."

Professor Xavier moved to create a clear view of the large monitor behind him. "This is a real-time feed from one of our remote surveillance posts. Obviously, our visitors are unaware of its existence."

The picture showed a clearing in the forest that surrounded the mansion. Several large vehicles were drawn up in it, and there was a group of figures in the foreground. Harry recognized the White Queen; with her were two tall, dark-haired men, and an enormously fat fellow with gingery hair. Standing a little apart were two younger men - teenagers, in fact. One was broad and muscular with black hair and Asian features; the other was slender, olive skinned and arrogant. Nearby was a large creature that resembled a cat, except that instead of forepaws, it had human hands, and seemed to be listening with intelligence to the conversation. In the background was a group of men similar to the mercenaries who had attacked them at the mall, except that these men wore red uniforms.

Most disturbing of all were four gigantic figures, each surrounded by a cluster of technicians in overalls, who stood by the vehicles. The figures were man shaped, made of metal, and stood at least ten feet tall.

"Sentinels!" gasped Cyclops, "I haven't seen one of those in, what, six or seven years."

Xavier exhaled heavily. "These machines do resemble Sentinel anti-Mutant robots, similar to those designed by Dr. Bolivar Trask all those years ago. The White Rook may have recreated them - even enhanced the original design.

"I've been able to make a fast telepathic scan without being detected by the White Queen," Xavier added. "It appears that their plan is to use the Sentinels for a frontal attack on the building, drawing off our forces, so that the rest of them can get inside. Their aim is to seize all the children.

"We must make it seem as if their plan has succeeded. Cyclops, you and the X-Men proper will meet the Sentinels outside. Ariel, you and the senior students will remain in the mansion. Your task will be to hold off the Hellfire Club until the X-Men have disposed of the Sentinels. You must not allow anyone to reach the Secure Room."

"Professor," said the Beast, "I hate to admit it, but Nightcrawler and I will be of little or no use against those robots. My experience from some years ago proves that."

"Another thing," put in Cannonball, "I'll be no good on the inside team--unless you want half the walls taken out!"

"True," said the Professor. "Very well. Beast and Nightcrawler, you work with Ariel's team. Cannonball, join Cyclops outside. Use what time we have left to make detailed plans.

Ariel led her team to one of the map tables, which was actually a horizontal computer screen. "OK," she began, "first things first. Beast, do you want to take over?"

He shook his shaggy head. "No. This is your team, your classmates. I'll back you up."

"Thanks. Nightcrawler?"

"You're in charge, Ariel."

"Looks like I'm not getting out of this one," she quipped. She took a deep breath. "OK, I'm usually Rogue's second, but she's not here, so now I need a second." She turned to Harry, "Hawk, you're it. Guys, if I'm taken out, or lose contact, Hawk's in charge. Anyone have a problem with that?"

There were emphatic headshakes around the table. Harry was a little taken aback, but for once, held his tongue. Ariel carried on. "So, lets focus on the opposition." Pictures began to flash on the screen as she spoke. "The Black King, the White Queen, the White Rook and the Black Bishop. The next ones are the Hellions--the White Queen's students: Thunderbird, Empath and Catseye.

"Those red-suited mercs are a special elite unit. They're veterans from Marine Recon, Navy SEALs, the French Foreign Legion and the British SAS. Tough guys." Kitty tapped a few keys, and the screen showed a detailed plan of the mansion. "Now, we have to assume that the enemy knows we have a Secure Room. If I were the Black King, that would be my main target. What do you think, Hunter?"

Ron leaned forward. He had what Hermione called his 'chess face' on. His usually mobile features were uncannily calm, his eyes focused. "They'll have to find the room. The ground floor has the biggest area, and it's most likely to have the entrance to any secure place. They'll send the mercenaries to search that and the arboretum. I'd guess they'd deploy their Mutants to search the other floors, looking for us. If we all stick together, the mercs will just overwhelm us with their stunners; we should spread out."

"Good! If we spread out, and they do, we might be able to pick them off one by one," Ariel said approvingly. "We know this building, all the short cuts and nooks and crannies. They don't. That gives us an edge.

"The entrance to the Secure Room is on the first floor. Beast, Nightcrawler, I want you to secure that area. The other three floors we'll take, teams of two where possible. Second floor: Sunspot and Psyche, Hunter and Wolfsbane take one wing each. Charm and I will cover the third floor. Top floor's the smallest. Hawk, can you handle that solo?"

Harry nodded. Ariel looked around the group. "Use the hands-free communicators set to Tactical 2, but flip the Command Frequency override so we can hear Cyclops if we need to." She paused, slowly surveying her friends. "Listen, guys, be careful, OK? I don't want to lose anyone. No silly risks or grandstanding. Got that, Hawk? Sunspot?"

"Yes, Ma'am," said Roberto, as he and Harry exchanged guilty grins. Scott had criticized them more than once for their hot-dogging antics on skateboards and Firebolt. They were both what he called 'adrenalin junkies'.

Just then, Cyclop's voice rang out, "They're moving!"

"This is it," said Ariel. "Get in position everyone. Stay in contact, and don't lose your teammate!"

As they started to leave, Kitty caught Harry's hand. "I meant what I said, Harry. I want you--I need you--to come back in one piece. I have plans for you, Harry Potter, and they don't include a funeral!"

"Nothing like incentive," Harry grinned before his face turned serious. "You look after yourself, Kitty." He kissed her quickly, "You know I love you, don't you?"

She nodded. "I know. But, Harry, other people love you, too. You should let them know how you feel. Think about that. Now, go!"

The teams took up their positions. As Sunspot and Psyche moved quietly around their designated section, they heard the noise of conflict outside when the Sentinels engaged the X-Men. "We should get some action soon," muttered Sunspot.

"Shh! Someone's coming!"

They melted into doorways at opposite sides of the corridor, hearing footsteps approaching and two male voices bickering. "The Black King put me in charge, and that's how it's gonna be!" someone said.

"Then, he's a fool. My family were leading armies for Spanish kings when yours were still using stone axes," another voice taunted.

"Look, pal, I don't have time for this. Keep it down! We don't know if all Xavier's people are outside," the first replied.

Two figures came into view. The powerful form of Thunderbird moved cautiously along the wall, but slender Empath strode arrogantly down the center of the corridor.

Sunspot and Psyche had been together long enough to need neither words nor signals. Sunspot knew that the longer Psyche could observe and register a person, the more effective her power would be. He could act straight away, knowing that she would be there if he needed her. Sunspot concentrated, and felt the surge as his body released solar energy stored in his unique cells. Sunspot stepped out into the corridor. "Well, dudes, guess it's not your lucky day!"

Thunderbird said nothing; he simply charged. He was fast, but Sunspot had been expecting the attack and his judo-style counter sent the larger youth crashing to the floor. Sunspot knew that Thunderbird presented the greater physical danger, so he went for Empath, hoping to put him down before Thunderbird got back on his feet.

Suddenly, Sunspot froze. A wave of deep, primal fear washed over him. He began to sweat; he wanted desperately to run, to hide. He gritted his teeth and took another step. The fear redoubled, his insides churned and, despite his will, his body refused to move.

Empath gave a nasty laugh, his eyes glowing with a violet light. "You are braver than I thought. Most would have fled by now. But you are mine, Sunspot, mine to mold and twist. Now, shall I increase your fear until your heart stops? Shall I force you to such self-loathing that you end your own pathetic life?"

"Empath, were supposed to catch them, not kill them!" warned Thunderbird.

Empath sneered, "Silence, oaf! I do as I please."

Sunspot tried to move. Empath stared at him, as he once again raised the level of fear. Then, quite abruptly, Sunspot felt his strength return as Empath's eyes widened, his jaw dropped, and his face turned ashen. "No! No! Madre de Dios! Help me, Holy Mother, HELP ME!" Empath dropped to his knees, clawing at his own eyes and howling like the damned. Psyche stepped out of the doorway where she had been hiding, her face grim as she focused on the groveling Hellion.

To his credit, Thunderbird reacted quickly, tackling Sunspot from behind. Sunspot was able, just, to roll with the punch, but now the fight was on in earnest. Psyche wanted to make Empath pay for what he had done to her man, but she was an X-Man, and X-Men were not vengeful or cruel. As Empath knelt in front of her, she used a snap-kick to the jaw to send him into merciful oblivion.

Sunspot and Thunderbird were evenly matched. The young X-Man was stronger, but his power still left him vulnerable. Thunderbird was more agile and resilient, darting in and striking fast, using his longer reach to keep his distance. But the Hellion underestimated his opponent. Sunspot suddenly staggered, as if about to fall; Thunderbird moved in to finish the job, only to find himself seized in an unbreakable grip.

Sunspot lifted his opponent and slammed him against the wall. Once, the breath whooshed out of Thunderbirds lungs. Twice, Sunspot heard a rib crack. Three times, and Thunderbird went limp in his grasp, out cold.

In the opposite wing, Hunter and Wolfsbane were bracing for their own fight. Wolfsbane shifted into wolf form, sniffed the air for a moment, then set off with Ron in pursuit. Soon enough, they came upon an open door, through which voices floated.

"Can you be a little more precise, my dear?" a man's voice queried, sounding impatient.

"Catseye not bloodhound!" this voice was soft, almost a purr, but carried hissing overtones. "Can smell children, yes. To follow trail, not so easy."

Wolfsbane was about to launch herself into the room, but Ron signaled her to wait. He reached into a pocket and pulled out a small, round object, which he tossed into the room, then closed the door quickly. There was a muffled bang, followed by coughing, choking and good deal of swearing. Ron said to Wolfsbane's inquiring whine, "Dungbomb. A practical joke we use at school. I brought some with me. Didn't know they'd come in useful in a fight, though."

The door opened, and Catseye, followed by the Black Bishop, staggered out. Both were covered in filth, choking and had streaming eyes - they had experienced a Weasley dungbomb, more potent than the Zonko's model. Wolfsbane snarled and sprang at Catseye. Ron leveled his wand at the Black Bishop. "I wouldn't do anything silly, mate," Ron warned. "Just put your hands up and do as you're told."

"Why would I do that, sonny? You can put that silly little stick down. It's not as if it's you we're after," the Black Bishop huffed. "Oh, well, if you insist on being a fool!"

Ron felt himself growing heavy. It was getting difficult to stand, to hold up his wand, even to breathe. Ron had always been physically strong, and the training he had undergone recently had made him even more fit, better equipped than many to resist Leland's power. It might have gone differently, though, if the Black Bishop had not been suffering from the effects of the dungbomb. As it was, Leland's eyes were watering, and he kept coughing and spluttering. His distress spoiled his concentration so that he couldn't bring his full power to bear.

Even so, Ron was on all fours, close to passing out and barely able to think. Then his mind flashed to Hermione and Harry and the first real threat they had ever faced together. Unable to think of anything else, he gestured at Leland, saying, "Wingardium leviosa!"

The Black Bishop's feet left the floor. He lost focus, and Ron surged to his feet. Leland struggled to regain control.

Catseye surprised Wolfsbane. Disoriented by the dungbomb and taken by surprise, Catseye still had feline resilience and reactions. The fight went back and forth along the corridor but, finally, Catseye had Wolfsbane pinned on her back, hands locked on her throat. "Redfur not so tough," growled Catseye. "Bigger teeth than Catseye, smaller brain. Sleep now."

Wolfsbane was down, but not out. She shifted into her semi-human form and kneed Catseye in the gut. Catseye's grip on her throat loosened, allowing Wolfsbane to suck in a strengthening breath. She used the leverage her human limbs gave her to get the roll atop Catseye, then pummeled her with body punches. Catseye let go. Wolfsbane scrambled to her feet. When her opponent tried to get up, Wolfsbane brought both hands, fingers interlocked, down hard on the base of the feline Mutant's neck. Catseye went down and didn't move again.

Wolfsbane turned to check on Hunter and found an extraordinary scene. The gross form of the Black Bishop floated in midair. A few feet away from him stood Hunter, clearly in difficulty, his breathing labored. He moved as if underwater. Hunter gestured with his wand, and the Black Bishop shot across the corridor to crash through one of the large windows; the Bishop was now floating outside, two floors above the ground. Hunter lumbered to the sill and spoke haltingly. "If I pass out...you fall. I'm all that's... holding...you up!"

Seconds later, Hunter relaxed. Whatever the Black Bishop had been doing had obviously stopped. Leland shrieked, "All right! Bring me back in!"

"Did I say I'd do that?" asked Hunter with genuine surprise in his voice. Leland's eyes bulged as Hunter lowered his wand. Wolfsbane yelled, "Hunter! NO!" She bounded to the window in time to see the Black Bishop fall ten feet to land with a crash on the veranda roof. He rolled off and dropped another story, impacting the lawn with a sodden thud to lay still.

Wolfsbane sighed with relief. "I'd forgotten the veranda was on this side."

"Good job I hadn't," Hunter said with a grin. He scanned the area visible from the window, then stiffened and swore. "Wolfsbane, get hold of Harr-- Hawk--on that radio thing and tell him to meet us on the rear balcony as quick as he can!"

Ron took off towards his and Harry's room at a dead run. Wolfsbane looked out, saw what he had seen, and shot off after him, triggering her communicator as she went.

Outside, the new Sentinels were proving as tough as Cyclop's memories of the old ones. The last time he had faced this foe, he had been 18 years old and still growing into his role as team leader. The Beast had been with him, then, along with Warren Worthington, the winged Mutant known as Angel, Scott's brother, Alex, and Alex's girlfriend, Lorna. And, there had been Jean...

Cyclops shook off the memories, concentrating on the present. The Sentinels advanced in a broad line, unleashing volleys of stun-bolts from launchers in the palms of their hands. For a few moments, it was all the X-Men could do to dodge the barrage. Storm directed a freezing wind at the giant robots; soon their forms were crusted with a layer of frost. It slowed them a little, but Storm didn't have Iceman's power--she couldn't freeze them solid.

"Try to split them!" Cyclops told his team. He and Wolverine moved to one flank; Banshee and Cannonball moved to the other. Storm changed her tactics, summoning a whirlwind that battered the two central Sentinels.

Cyclops fired his eye-beams at the flank Sentinel nearest him. The powerful blast didn't even scratch the armor, but the robot turned quickly--too quickly; nothing that large should move so fast! An aperture opened in its forearm, flinging a canister toward Cyclops and Wolverine. Before even Wolverine could dodge the missile, the canister released a metallic net that trapped them both.

When Cyclops tried to open his visor, nothing happened! The net apparently produced some kind of inhibitor field that neutralized Mutant abilities. Cyclops struggled, but pain shot through him--the net must also be charged with electricity. The only way to avoid pain was to lie still.

The Sentinel approached them, and announced in a flat, mechanical tone, "Mutants designated Cyclops and Wolverine neutralized. Anesthetize for transport." It raised its other hand and a cloud of gas blew toward them.

Luckily, Storm was watching. She sent a gust of wind to whisk the gas away from them back into the robot's face, obscuring its vision.

Wolverine's enhanced senses were gone, and he lay stripped of his superhuman strength and agility. But, his natural muscles were still there, and the inhibitor field could not take away his claws. Gritting his teeth against the electrical shocks, he extended a single razor-sharp blade and, with a grunt of pain, sliced through a strand of the net. The circuit broke. The shocks stopped and he felt his full strength return. With a snarl, he shredded the rest of the net and told Cyclops, "Hang on! I'll get you somethin' to shoot at!"

The Sentinel emerged from the gas cloud in time to see Wolverine charging. Before it could react, Wolverine leapt up to its chest, claws extended. The original Sentinels had had armor plate shells, but these had complex layers of ultra-hard alloys, high-impact ceramics and Kevlar. Even so, Wolverine's adamantium claws went through the Sentinel's skin like a knife through butter.

Using one set of claws to hold on, and bracing his feet against the Sentinel's torso, Wolverine slashed an irregular hole in the chest plate. He jumped away before the robot could strike at him. The Sentinel looked down at itself, remarking, "Shell integrity compromised. Re-evaluate Mutant designated Wolverine. Raise threat level from Blue to Ultraviolet."

"Don't bother," muttered Cyclops, before he aimed his eyebeams into the hole Wolverine had made. Delicate components vaporized, and the Sentinel went down.

On the other flank, Banshee directed his scream at another Sentinel. Sensors overloaded, the mechanical juggernaut stood twitching and thrashing. A kind of juddering whine erupted from the machine.

Cannonball had watched Banshee and Cyclops practice a maneuver that just might work in this situation. Now! Cannonball ran forward and launched himself. Knowing that he became virtually invulnerable when blasting, he flew into the Sentinel's face. Already brittle from Banshee's attack, the head shattered when Cannonball struck.

Storm had run out of patience. Her cool facade concealed a fiery, passionate spirit that had had enough of mechanical monsters. Storm's normally brown eyes burned silver as she unleashed her full power. A titanic lightning bolt struck from a clear sky onto one of the Sentinels. Nothing could resist that amount of energy. Within seconds, the Sentinel was melted slag.

Exhausted, Storm hung in the air, and the remaining Sentinel attacked. A stun-bolt hit Storm full on; she dropped like a stone. Swooping down, Banshee caught her in his arms to cushion her landing.

"ORORO!" roared Wolverine. He sprang snarling at the Sentinel, seized by a Berserker rage. The X-Men could only watch, awed, as Wolverine attacked. His claws slashed chunks out of the flailing, staggering Sentinel. For a moment, it seemed he could actually win, then a huge metal hand connected, hurling him several yards to land hard against the ground.

The Sentinel lurched toward Wolverine, but was hit simultaneously by Cyclop's eye-beams, Banshee's sonic attack and Cannonball at full thrust. The robot simply fell apart. The X-Men cheered.

Inside the mansion, Beast and Nightcrawler were having some fun, which is more than can be said for the unfortunate mercenaries. Their leader's name was Standing, and he had once been a Captain in the British Army's elite 22nd Special Air Services regiment, the widely feared SAS. His two lieutenants were equally tough, a former Recon Marine named Cole, and Legrasse, late of la Legion Etrangere. All three knew about Mutants from the extensive files kept by the security services of their respective countries. Standing also knew about wizards, though few in the Wizarding world were aware that the British Security Service - MI5 - kept and maintained detailed records on every student who passed though Hogwarts. As far as Standing was concerned, his employers had sent him into the lion's den armed with a stun-projector, a telescopic baton and strict orders to capture his targets unharmed. He was not a happy man.

Heavy alloy shutters closed down over all the windows on the ground floor as soon as the mercs entered. Standing cursed; not all of his men had low-light gear with them, and those that did found their equipment hampered by the daylight filtering in from the upper floors and arboretum. He knew from the files how stealthy some of the Mutants could be: This was trouble waiting to happen.

Standing split his men into groups of three, making sure at least one of each group had low-light goggles. They began their search, checking in regularly, and that was when the problems started. At each check-in, one group failed to report. There were no alert calls, no sounds of fired stun-bolts--not even the noises of a fight. His men just vanished in the nerve-wracking silence.

Finally, the moment came that Standing had been dreading. No one answered his hail. All that was left of a troop of highly skilled combat soldiers was Cole, Legrasse, and himself. "Right," he said, "I've had enough. We're getting out by the quickest route."

There was no reply from behind him, except a kind of choking gurgle. He spun, to see that Cole and Legrasse had each been grabbed around the throat by a large, blue-furred hand. The hands were attached to a pair of equally furry, heavily muscled arms that belonged to a shaggy creature who hung casually upside down from a light fixture. The creature looked at Standing and spoke in cultured tones that sounded odd coming from a fanged mouth. "Regretfully, we cannot permit you gentlemen to leave just now," said the Beast. "Not until our colleagues have completed their -discussions--with your employers."

The two men he held slumped in his grasp, unconscious. Standing leveled his stunner, but something whip-like lashed out of the shadows and coiled round the weapon, wrenching it out of his grasp. Another voice said, "Guten tag, Herr Kapitan."

Standing found himself facing a creature out of nightmare, a shadowy form with glowing yellow eyes. He lunged for it, going for a killing strike, despite his orders. There was a bang, a cloud of thick smoke, and the creature was gone. Standing spun round again to see the thing appear behind him in midair! Turning acrobatically, Nightcrawler delivered a flying wheel-kick that put Standing out of the fight--and his misery.

Upstairs, Ariel and Charm positioned themselves near the center of their designated level where the corridors met. "If anybody's searching, he'll have to come past here," said Ariel, "so, now, we wait." She crossed her arms, head down, looking as though she were thinking hard. Finally, she turned to Hermione. "There's something I need to ask you while we have a moment. Are you...OK about me and Harry?"

Hermione put her hand on Kitty's and smiled. "Yes. Look, Kitty, Ron and I chose each other--God, five years ago, though we didn't realise it then. Harry's always been like a brother to me. When I saw how you and he were getting close, I was thrilled for him, and for you. Its more than all right--it's perfect!"

They heard heavy footsteps coming toward them. Ariel closed her hand around Charm's, and dragged her through the nearest wall. It was one of the oddest sensations Hermione had ever experienced--the wall felt like a warm, heavy fog. Ariel tiptoed to the door, and she motioned Charm to join her. They listened to male voices.

"I expected better of those youngsters, Donald. After the mall incident, I was sure they'd be ready to fight. They must all be cowering in a bunker, somewhere."

"Don't be too disappointed, Sebastian. They're making our job easier."

Ariel signaled Charm for silence, took her hand again, and the two girls slipped through the door to creep up behind the unsuspecting Black King and White Rook.

The Black King heard a female voice muttering something behind him. Then, the White Rook gasped. Shaw looked at his colleague who was staring stupidly at his own upper arms; a small, feminine hand seemed to have sprouted from each bicep. Pierce's mighty bionic arms suddenly became so much useless metal and plastic. He managed to turn, staggering under the dead weight of his artificial limbs, in time to see a slender, auburn-haired girl drop into the floor to her waist, then thrust her hands through his thighs. His cybernetic legs cut out, and he crumpled, paralyzed, to the floor.

Ariel floated back upwards, right into a powerful slap from the Black King. The blow passed through her, throwing Shaw off balance. Ignoring the ghostly girl for the moment, Shaw leapt at her companion, a diminutive brunette. Once he had her by the scruff of the neck, the phantom would have to surrender to save her ally. His new quarry was quicker than he had expected, ducking under his arms and darting away. As the two girls, light-footed and agile, ran rings round the raging Black King, he tried unsuccessfully to seize or incapacitate them.

Shaw was confused--something wasn't right. His vision seemed blurred, his hearing muffled, and he was becoming tired too quickly. The Black King was in superb shape and had taken care to charge himself up with energy before entering the mansion. But now, after only moments, he was growing short of breath, his vision was beginning to tunnel, and spots of color swam before his eyes. Unaccountably, he had to stop moving. He stood, gasping for breath that wouldn't come; then he sank to his knees, then to all fours, finally slumping to the floor and rolling onto his back. A hazy shape moved in front of him.

The little brunette knelt beside him and began to speak in a precise, cut-glass English accent. "We call it a Bubble-Head Charm. We use it to breathe underwater. This is a little variation I dreamed up. Basically, it encases your head in a magical bubble that seals air in and out. Normally, the air inside magically replenishes itself, but not in this case. You've used up the supply you had in there; you won't get any more."

Shaw looked at her, and managed to whisper, "Well done," before he passed out. Hermione waited to make sure he was fully unconscious, then dissolved the bubble.

"We'd better truss him up, we don't know how long he'll be out," she said to Ariel. Hermione gestured with her wand, and the Black King's inert form was securely bound by fine black cords.

Ariel sat on the floor with her back against the wall, Charm came over to sit beside her. "Well, that wasn't hard," said Ariel. "I'll bet the guys would have made a much bigger deal out of it."

"You know it, agreed Charm, chuckling. "I just hope Ron--"

"Hunter," Ariel corrected.

"Sorry. I just hope Hunter has left at least some furniture intact downstairs. He can get a bit over-enthusiastic. Not that I'm complaining. Enthusiasm can be very nice in it's place," Hermione mused.

"I know," Kitty said dreamily. "Harry - wait a minute. Harry! He hasn't checked in." The two girls stared at each other in alarm. Something was wrong. And Harry was alone.

Chapter 8: Battles Royal

The attic at Xavier's, Harry decided, was the closest he'd been to Hogwarts in weeks. Like an unused tower room, it was dingy, dusty and festooned with cobwebs. The attic spaces were either bare or stuffed with old classroom furniture. He wondered why Kitty had sent him up here. Several reasons, he supposed: Ariel apparently trusted him to handle anything he ran across, and this assignment made it unlikely that both of them would be taken out at once. On a personal level, he guessed Kitty was trying to keep him safe.

He patrolled cautiously, hardly even aware that three weeks ago he could not have moved with this degree of sureness and silence. He caught a whiff of something over the omnipresent mustiness--perfume! Harry was no connoisseur of feminine fragrances, but this was not the brand Kitty favoured, nor was it Hermione's or Dani's, and Rahne seldom wore perfume. It might have been Storm's, but he doubted it, as Ororo was outside.

That left one possibility--an intruder, perhaps the White Queen. Harry recalled Professor Xavier's briefings. The White Queen had the same telepathic abilities as Xavier, but rejected the rigorous discipline the professor used to augment his skills. She relied on technology to enhance her abilities. Harry prepared his mental shields, as Professor X had taught him, and moved toward the direction where the perfume seemed strongest.

He found Emma Frost waiting for him in a nearby storage room. She was standing, tall, pale and (Harry couldn't help thinking) rather lovely, in the center of the floor among the old desks and stools. A sparkling silver band encircled her head. She smiled. "Hello, Harry, so nice to see you again. I hoped we'd run across each other. We have a matter to settle, you and I!" She looked around, as if searching for something. "Ah! Just the two of us. No Bambi to help out this time, you little snot!"

She lashed out with her mind, wrenching at Harry's thoughts and feelings, trying to bend him to her will. Harry held his shields as best he could, but he knew he wasn't going to keep her out forever, and he needed to do more than defend. Behind the mental blocks, his mind was racing. Her headband was the key; if he could just...

"Stupefy!" Harry had learned that it wasn't possible to stun an actively shielded telepath completely. Hermione had tried to blindside him once in the Danger Room, while he was fending off Psyche. His spell merely knocked the White Queen backwards, breaking her concentration, as Hermione's had done with him. Harry followed up fast, transfiguring the headband into a daisy chain.

The White Queen swore, using language that would have made Ron blush. She whipped up a hand, aiming a silvery object at him. Harry's body reacted before his mind. He dived to one side as the stunner fired harmlessly at the spot where he had been. He hit the floor rolling and came up on his feet, marveling at how easy that maneuver was, given the practice he'd had. He swept up a stool and threw it at the White Queen's face, then darted out of the room.

Dashing down the corridor, Harry kicked open a nearby door, then slipped silently through the room and past the next door. He remembered Logan saying, "Never let the enemy choose the ground. Whoever chooses the ground has the advantage, so if you need to, get clear and make them come to you. Try to regain the initiative."

Harry reached into his suit's largest pocket and pulled out his Invisibility Cloak. He had brought it with him, never expecting to use it, but it was handy now. He held himself still under the cloak, breathing shallowly and emptying his mind of thought.

He heard the White Queen storming down the corridor, howling, "Where are you, boy? Don't think you can hide from me. Spoiled Limey brat! If you don't come out, I'll give you the thrashing your mother should have."

She hesitated just beyond the door he had kicked, then came on into the room where he was standing. She stalked past him, still holding the stunner, pausing in the center of the floor, head cocked, listening. "You're near, Harry, I can sense you. I'll have you in a minute, I promise!"

Harry flung aside the cloak and leveled his wand. "Expelliarmus!" The stunner flew from the White Queen's hand. Harry stepped toward her. "Pack it in!" he commanded sharply, "I don't want to hurt you."

She jabbed at him with her mind again but, without the enhancing headband, her probe was no match for his shields. She stared for a moment, then, quite suddenly, she gave a screech of rage and flew at him, throwing wild punches.

Emma Frost was not a trained fighter, and though she was fit from daily aerobic workouts and tennis, she was no match for the sinewy youth. It took Harry only seconds to subdue her, though he had to drop his wand in the process. He held her in one of the less painful holds he had learned; he couldn't bring himself to knock her out, despite Wolverine's frequent warnings to male students that "Chivalry can get you killed!" It didn't, but it caused him some trouble.

The White Queen redoubled her mental attack. Though Harry tried to shield, she had opened the link. She began to bore into his mind, dragging up memories and thoughts of his worst moments, trying to hurt him in any way she could. Another opponent might have resisted; Harry counterattacked.

Harry's telepathy was latent only because he could not open a link with another mind. He could, however, grasp control of a link someone else had made. In Harry's brain, long-dormant neural circuits flared into life. Before the White Queen could grasp what had happened, control of the mind-link was wrenched from her by a steely will almost as strong as Xavier's. A powerful, probing mind pushed aside her hasty shield, stripped away the veneer of sophistication and ambition, and revealed Emma Frost, a lonely, frightened and rejected little girl whose wealthy parents feared their only child's uncanny perceptions.

The mind that had so ruthlessly penetrated hers was the icy, crystal-clear mind of the young X-Man called Hawk, but behind it was the warm, compassionate heart of Harry Potter. It was Harry who understood that lonely child. Harry who shared with her his memories of the cupboard where he had spent most of his childhood, and the petty cruelties of the Dursleys. In the end, it was Harry who defeated the White Queen.

They had sunk to the floor together. Harry was no longer restraining Emma; instead, he was cradling her gently as she wept. "Shh," he breathed, "it's over."

She looked up at him through her tears. "You son of a bitch," she whined softly. "Nobody ever did that to me. How can you be stronger than I am?"

"I never forgot how to care," Harry told her. "Now, go to sleep."

"Harry," she murmured, as her eyes began to close, "you should tell your friends about your feelings. It's important. I never did, and now..." Emma Frost fell asleep.

Harry arranged her as comfortably as he could, and retrieved his wand. He had a killer headache, which peaked abruptly, then vanished. He felt something warm and wet on his upper lip, his fingers came away red. His nose had bled a little, apparently. He needed to talk to the Professor about what just happened.

His communicator crackled. "Wolfsbane to Hawk. Emergency! Meet us on the rear balcony, stat!"

"Wolfsbane, this is Ariel. What's up?" Kitty's voice asked.

"Hunter to Ariel. The mansion's being infiltrated from the rear. Hawk and I can handle it while you secure the interior." Ron's voice was crisp and commanding, a new sound. Harry raised an eyebrow, surprised. Before Ariel could respond, he triggered his own mike.

"On my way, Hunter. Ariel, I have the White Queen up here, she's out, but I don't know for how long. You should send someone to secure her." He knew that Ariel would not countermand or contradict him, she trusted him too much, and she knew he trusted Ron's judgment on these things.

Nightcrawler appeared out of nowhere. "Hawk, I'll get you to the balcony, then I'll come back for Ms. Frost." He put an arm around Harry's shoulders, and then... Harry wasn't in the vortex of portkey or Floo travel. It was more like being picked up by a giant and thrown, while simultaneously being punched in the stomach. One second, they were in the room, the next, they were on the balcony overlooking the sunken formal garden adjoining the arboretum. Nightcrawler released Harry, winked at him, and then vanished with another bamf! of foul-smelling smoke.

Wolfsbane was there, in her semi-human form. She pointed across the gardens without speaking. Two giant metal forms had emerged from the woods and appeared to be assessing the rear of the building. More Sentinels?

As Harry watched, Ron tore out onto the balcony, carrying both their brooms. He tossed Harry his Firebolt. The two of them mounted up, kicked off and streaked across the gardens to engage the Sentinels.

Wolfsbane had never seen anything quite like it. She couldn't help the boys, and there were things she should have been doing, but she was spellbound by wonder at their flight.

She had ridden on a broom, of course; broom rides had become a regular part of Sunday mornings at Xavier's. Laughing children whizzed around the grounds, transported by the endlessly obliging Ron and Harry. Rahne had been both exhilarated and terrified as she had flown along, resting against Ron's broad back, her arms tight around his waist. Loyal as she was to her Sam, Rahne was not about to pass up a legitimate chance to snuggle up to hunky Ron!

Only now did Wolfsbane realize what broom flying was all about. This must be the sort of thing that went on in that Quidditch game the boys were forever talking about. Harry and Ron swooped, circled and zigzagged in an interweaving pattern that left the two Sentinels floundering. They dodged stun-bolts and net canisters with aplomb. Harry's voice floated dimly back to Wolfsbane's keen ears. She couldn't make out the words, but one of the Sentinels suddenly sank to its knees in the ground. Then, she heard Ron's shout, and the other Sentinel's hand--the one with the stun-projector in its palm--instantly became a balloon, which burst, leaving a truncated and useless stump.

Ron had concentrated too hard on the spell. The Sentinel lobbed a stun grenade at him. The grenade was proximity-fused, and the blast sent Hunter spinning out of control to smash to the ground.

Inside, Ariel and Charm had met up with the rest of the team in the main hall of the mansion. The various members of the Hellfire Club were all secured. Beast was working over the White Rook, muttering, "There is no actual damage to your limbs, Mr. Pierce, but you will need to recharge them and reboot the control interfaces. I don't think we can permit you to do that here, though!"

The Black Bishop occupied another stretcher, bruised and demoralized, but with no broken bones. Shaw was conscious, and he had surrendered. On Professor Xavier's orders, Charm had untied him. Shaw now sat against the wall with the White Queen's head in his lap. Kitty didn't know what Harry had done to her, but Emma Frost was sleeping like a child.

Psyche had strapped up Thunderbird's broken rib--none too gently--depositing him next to Empath and Catseye. Empath huddled against the wall, neither speaking nor looking at anyone. Catseye had transformed into a tall, blonde girl with green eyes and a cat's tail; she observed everything in silence. The mercenaries slouched along the other wall, under the watchful eyes of Sunspot and Nightcrawler, who kept a liberated stun-projector trained on them.

Suddenly, Charm gasped, and her hand flew to her neck, to the pendant Ron had bought her. "He's in trouble!" she said. She closed her eyes, concentrating. In a blaze of intuition, Ariel dashed forward and flung her arms around her friend. There was a second's impression of a dizzying vortex, and they were outside.

A giant shadow loomed over them. "Sentinel!" yelled Ariel, as she dived off to one side. Ron was on his hands and knees at Hermione's feet, shaking his head blearily. The Sentinel looked down and intoned, "Unidentified targets. Threat level Indigo. No orders. Lethal response indicated." It raised its remaining hand.

Hermione gripped her wand, crying "Protego!" just as the Sentinel fired its laser.

The magical shield was meant to deflect spells and curses, not multi-gigawatt laser-bolts. It held, but only just, and Hermione was flung down, dazed, beside Ron.

With a bellow of rage, Ron regained his feet and stood over his fallen love. As the Sentinel prepared to fire again, he thrust out his wand and shouted "Reflectio!" A perfect, disc-shaped mirror sprang up in front of him, and the incoming laser-bolt rebounded directly into the Sentinel's right eye. An inch either way, and it would have expended itself with minimal damage on the impenetrable shell. As it was, the laser tore through the delicate visual sensor array and melted the complex computer brain behind it. The Sentinel stopped in its tracks, never to move again.

As Ariel rolled and scrambled to her feet, she heard her name being called. Hawk was arrowing towards her, one hand outstretched. As he flew past, she caught it, and vaulted lithely up onto the broom behind him. For the next few seconds, they twisted and swooped through the air, dodging the remaining Sentinel. The thing was stuck, up to its knees in solid ground, but its weaponry was still lethal.

Harry racked his brains to think of a spell that would help. Fireballs had bounced off the Sentinel's armor. He'd been unable to explode it, he couldn't stun it and it was too big to transfigure. Most spells were meant to deal with humans or other living creatures. The Wizarding world had never had to cope with giant robots! He wondered if Hermione knew a spell to deactivate Golems, and whether that sort of spell might work.

Suddenly, Ariel was speaking into his ear. "Hawk, do you trust me?"

"Of course!"

"Then go straight for its chest and stop when I tell you."

Harry obeyed, plunging straight into a volley of stun-bolts. Ariel gasped, she had never realized what a superb flier her Hawk was--Logan had picked the perfect codename for Harry. He avoided every strike, while still keeping dead on target . Closer, closer-- now!

Charm and Hunter watched in astonishment as Ariel, Hawk, broom and all disappeared into the Sentinel's chest. Harry had stopped when ordered. They were inside the Sentinel. He saw and felt the thing around him like a dense fog with blue lights arrayed throughout. As he watched, the lights began to flicker wildly and converge on Kitty and him. When they touched either of them, the lights vanished or shot off at high speed in random directions.

Ariel told Harry, "In the phased state, we disrupt electronic systems. The longer we stay in here, the more this thing's insides will get scrambled. Go when I tell you."

Harry looked up. Above him, a white glow seemed to be the source of most of the blue lights. An idea struck him. He pointed his wand and said "Incandescens!" As the white glow began to turn orange, Kitty yelled "Go!" Harry shot forward, flying clear of the Sentinel, then looping around to see what damage they'd done.

The robot was now locked in a rigid, upright position. As Harry brought the broom to a hover, the Sentinel spoke. "Power flow disrupted. Control systems down. Power plant overload imminent. Auto-destruct initiated. Five, four, three..."

Harry turned his Firebolt and made for the trees at full speed. On the ground, Ron yelled, "Shit!", scooped Hermione up in his arms and tossed her over the low, stone wall that bordered the sunken garden. She dropped five feet into a flowerbed. A moment later, Ron followed her, shielding her with his body.

The explosion wasn't loud, but bits of the Sentinel were flung in all directions. Only the lighter ones struck the mansion, so little damage was done. Due to their sheltered position, Hermione and Ron missed the shockwave and the debris.

Of course, the first thing Hermione did when she could speak again was to tear a strip off Ron. "Ron Weasley, you idiot! What would have happened if one of those bits of metal had hit you? If you wanted to protect me, you should have used a shield, not your great, silly self."

Ron looked down at her. "No, love. Your shield barely held that laser. I wouldn't trust one of mine against dirty, great chunks of flying red-hot metal. If I'd been hit, well, I'm bigger than you, you'd have been all right--that's what mattered."

Hermione glared. Why wouldn't Ron trust his own abilities? He had just disposed of a Sentinel by using magic more adroitly than either she or Harry could have done--but he didn't trust himself to cast a simple shield spell effectively!

"You great lump," she chided him, "what would I do without you? Don't you dare do anything so stupid, again!"

He grinned. "Did I ever tell you you're beautiful when you're angry?"

Hermione heaved a great sigh. She flung her arms around his neck, dragged his face down to hers and kissed him fiercely.

The communicator buzzed. "Cyclops to all units. Report in!"

Hermione gave her man a disappointed little moue as she switched her mike on. "Charm here, with Hunter. Both OK. Two Sentinels down, but we lost visual with Ariel and Hawk."

"This is Ariel. Hawk and I are down and safe in the woods. We'll come back on foot."

Ron clicked on his own mike: "Hawk, your Firebolt OK?"

"Yeah. Ariel just doesn't fancy flying at the moment."

"OK," said Cyclops, "You two walk back. Charm, Hunter, go meet them. Take your time, kids, there's no rush. Cyclops out."

Ron looked at Hermione. "Did we just get permission for a walk in the woods?"

"Sounds like it!"

Ron heaved himself to his feet, then reached down to help Hermione up. They made their way towards the forest. As they walked, Hermione rubbed her rear vigorously where it had lain on the cold earth. "Oooh, chilly bum! That'll teach me to wear a thong under this!"

"Here, let me..." said Ron fondly. His large, warm hand expertly caressed the affected part. Hermione purred.

Moments earlier, the shockwave of the explosion had sent Harry's Firebolt careering out of control into the woods. Kitty clung to him, doing her best to phase them through the trees and branches Harry couldn't avoid. Finally, just as she was sure she was going to toss her cookies, Harry brought them to a gentle landing in a clearing. They dismounted, and Kitty staggered off, clutching her middle. Harry looked back the way they had come. "I think I might have overdone it a bit."

"No shit, Sherlock!" replied Kitty crossly, still preoccupied with her rebellious stomach. When she recovered, she flung herself, all contrition, into his arms. "I'm sorry, Harry. I didn't mean to snap."

He shushed her, kissing her softly. "It's OK, sweetheart! Anyway, you call that a snap? You should hear Hermione on form!"

She looked up at him, then said, "Harry, your face!"

He felt the dried blood on his upper lip. "Oh. It's nothing. The White Queen."

"She punched you in the nose?"

"No. We were sort of...mind wrestling. I have to talk to the Professor about it."

Frowning, Kitty searched her pockets. She pulled out a tissue and held it to his lips. "Spit!" she commanded. Harry obediently did so, and Kitty cleaned him up, muttering, "I don't know. I take my eyes off of you for a minute and--". She stopped, realizing, she sounded quite absurdly like her mother. Harry's grin told her that he suspected as much. She mock-punched him, and that led to another kiss--and another, after that.

It was at this point that Cyclops called for the check-in. Harry reluctantly shouldered his broom, and he and Kitty set off through the woods. They didn't hurry, stopping frequently to indulge their impulses. Hermione and Ron were proceeding in much the same way. The four finally met in a glade, and dashed toward each other.

Hermione ran into Harry's arms, and was surprised by his response. Usually, when she hugged him, he stiffened nervously. This time, he returned her hearty embrace, and, when she drew back a little to look at him, he leaned forward and kissed her as if she were a much-loved sister.

Astonished, Hermione's eyes widened. "Now, what was that in aid of?"

Harry shrugged. "Two people today told me I ought to take more care of my friends. I've been thick about telling people what they mean to me--you and Ron, especially. I've never really told you how much...how much I love you both."

"We've always known," Hermione said seriously. "The words never mattered." But, the sudden wetness in her eyes and the little catch in her voice told him how glad she was that he had spoken. Acting on instincts he was learning to trust, Harry pulled her closer. Hermione buried her face in his shoulder and clung to him tightly for a long time.

Kitty hung back, not wanting to intrude on the moment. She was completely taken aback when Ron bounded past Harry with barely a glance and swept her into a huge, warm bear hug. Not knowing what else to do, she hugged him back, feeling for a moment utterly safe and protected within those powerful arms. When Ron released her, she looked up at him. "Wow! Unexpected bonus for being Harry's girlfriend."

Ron's shook his head. "Don't ever think that!" he told her quietly. "You're our friend in your own right, Kitty, and we'd care just as much for you if you weren't seeing Harry."

Blinking back tears, Kitty yanked Ron down to her level, planting a smacking kiss on his cheek. They turned to see Harry and Hermione still holding each other. Ron was pleased, Harry was finally opening up! Yet he also felt a small, irrational, pang of jealousy. When they parted, he mock-grumbled: "Well, it's about time!"

Harry looked at Ron for a moment, then said, "Oh, to Hell with it!". The two friends clapped their arms around each other, thumping each other on the back. Kitty and Hermione linked arms, smiling indulgently. They all began to walk, laughing and teasing, back to the mansion.

Chapter 9: Raid on Hogwarts

Marie was shaken awake roughly by a masked figure in black who was levelling a wand at her face. She was herded with the rest of the Sixth Years out into the corridor.

Another shrouded figure was standing by the head of the stairs gesturing with her wand. Marie saw that the Fifth and Seventh Year girls had also been roused, and were standing huddled together. With Lavender in front, the girls began to file towards the stairs.

Marie joined the queue, but was stopped at the stairhead. "You--you're one of those Americans! Who are you? What are you?"

She replied evenly, "Who I am is Rogue. What I am is your worst nightmare!"

It was a line worthy of Logan, Marie thought, and what followed did Wolverine's training proud. The intruder was clothed from head to foot, gloved and masked--so much bulky clothing made her an easy target. Parvati, just behind Marie, saw a blurred whirl of arms and legs, heard the clatter of a dropped wand, a meaty thud and a groan, before the masked woman slumped at Rogue's feet.

Surprised, the other stranger whirled, saw her companion fall, and was mobbed by the furious girls. Wandless and pinioned, snarling like a cat, the woman defied her captors. Marie watched amazed as quiet Parvati drew off and landed a solid left on the woman's jaw. The woman staggered, then dropped to the floor.

"Bring them downstairs!" said Lavender. "We'd better see what's happened with the boys."

Marie gripped the first downed woman under the arms. Parvati and Lavender took the other. "Where did you learn to throw a punch like that?" Marie asked Parvati.

"Watching Ron Weasley knock seven bells out of Draco Malfoy!" Parvati replied with a grin.

Marie shook her head. "Can't wait to meet this Ron."

"You'll like him. It's a shame Hermione Granger got her hooks into him before anyone else could," Parvati said ruefully.

Don't go there, thought Marie, as they manhandled the inert women down the stairs, that's soap opera territory.

The boys were already in the Common Room, debating how to get up the stairs into the Girls' Dormitory. An open window revealed how the raiders had entered the tower. The girls deposited their victims next to two unconscious, but similarly dressed, men.

Lavender, who had stopped to pick up her wand, applied binding charms to the intruders before throwing herself into Neville's arms. "Are you alright? What happened? What's going on?"

"I'm fine, love, settle down!" Neville reassured her.

The girls learned that the boys had been awakened by raiders entering their room. One of the intruders approached Peter's bed. Peter jacknifed upright and delivered a thundering punch to the man's gut, sending him gasping and writhing to the floor. Even while tying him with a bedsheet, Peter managed to quip, "You know what a grouch I am if I don't get my eight hours." Bobby and Neville overpowered the other raider, holding him until Peter trussed him up as well. Then, they rushed to the Common Room, intending to rescue the girls or to ambush their captors.

"Get the masks off these four!" ordered Neville. The masks came off easily enough, but nobody recognised the faces underneath. "Doesn't matter," said Dean, "somebody in the school will know 'em!"

Nearly Headless Nick floated into the room in a state of agitation. "To arms! To arms!" he cried. "We are invaded! The lackeys of the Dark Lord have breached our walls!"

"Right!" barked Neville. "We're in control here. Sir Nicholas, will you find out what's happened to the teachers? Check the other Common Rooms and dormitories, as well. Also, see if you can find Dobby; it may be that the house-elves can help."

"Sir Nick," added Lavender, "if the other students have dealt with their raiders, ask the Prefects to meet us here, unless the teachers have taken charge. I think that if the staff were able to do anything, McGonagall would have been here by now."

"As you desire, gentles! I shall return as swiftly as chance allows!"

"OK." Neville thought for a moment. "A couple of people had best stay down here to watch these four and listen by the door. The rest of us should dress--particularly you girls. We lads are getting quite an eyeful!"

Lavender giggled. The female nightwear on show ranged from the floor-length flannel to oversized shirts over knickers. Lavender's eyes scanned the boys. "It's not just the lads!"

Surprisingly few of the boys wore traditional pyjamas; some Muggle habits had penetrated Hogwarts. Neville and Peter, in particular, wore only boxer shorts. Those girls who were not ogling Peter's physique were casting surprised but appreciative glances at Neville's slim, well-muscled form.

After a few more leers and grins, everyone went back up to the dormitories to dress. As Lavender pulled on a sweater, she turned to Marie, and started. Instead of her normal clothes, Marie had donned a close-fitting outfit of supple, black leather. On the belt buckle was a badge, a simple X in gold on black. So, that American school did have uniforms, after all!

"Welcome back...Rogue," said Lavender.

"You catch on quick, sugah," replied Rogue with a wink. "C'mon, let's go find out what kind of trouble we're in."

When they arrived, the Common Room was already crowded, not just with Gryffindors, but with members of Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff as well. At the big table, Neville was poring over a map along with Sir Nicholas and a half-dozen older students Rogue recognised, but didn't know by name. Colossus and Iceman were standing nearby, both in uniform, she noted approvingly. Neville looked up. "Ah! Lavender, Rogue, come over here. We need to make plans."

Sir Nick reported that the teachers had been magically sealed in their rooms, except for Professor Snape, of whom no trace could be found. All the dormitories had been invaded, but defended ably, except for Slytherin. Something of a brawl had erupted there. About a third of the students, led by Malfoy, had sided with the invaders. Though the invaders had been disarmed with the help of the Bloody Baron and Peeves, the student battle still raged. The outcome was in doubt.

Iceman and Parvati took over watching the captive invaders so the other students could go off to dress. Ginny and Colossus took up positions by the door. Ginny had not seen Peter in uniform before, and, for the first few minutes, she was more than a little distracted. She snapped to attention when she heard the sound of feet hurrying along the corridor. Pansy Parkinson came dashing around the corner. Clutching her wand, Pansy looked scared, angry and determined.

She said, "I know you have no reason to trust me, or any of us Slytherins, but most of us want to help. We've cornered Draco and his gang in a dormitory. I've come to tell you that the rest of us are ready to do what we can!"

Ginny looked hard at Pansy. She seemed sincere, but who could trust a Slytherin? Pansy saw the doubt in Ginny's eyes and stepped closer, speaking confidentially. "Look, I've thrown over Draco. He doesn't really like girls, if you know what I mean. Another thing, Ginevra, you and Rasputin here know something about me--about how I've had feelings for Harry. Bandying that news about would finish me in Slytherin! Hold that over my head if you must, but believe what I'm saying now: I'm here to help."

Peter was convinced. He looked at Ginny, who nodded. "Glad to have you with us, Pansy," said Ginny. "Go on in!"

Inside, the others at the table were shocked to see Pansy. She spoke directly to Neville. "Three things: One, we Slytherins are not all gutless wonders like Malfoy. Two, not all of us agree with the Death-Eaters. Three, this doesn't mean we like you, Gryffindor! Now, what do we need to do?"

Neville was about to reply when the fireplace flared. The flames turned green, and Dumbledore's head appeared. The Professor said, "I do not have much time. Intruders have breached our defences but we do not know why. I managed to send for Aurors before the castle's Floo network was cut off from the outside world, but it will take time for them to arrive.

"Stay in your Common Rooms until help appears. Work together, exercise caution, and expect the unexpected. Mr. Longbottom, you should know that an active Shrouding spell will limit the usefulness of your map. I must end now. Once again, take care!"

After Dumbledore's image disappeared, Neville activated the map. All it showed was a number of vague blobs, which seemed to be groups of people. "There are three main groups," Neville concluded. "One searching the towers, one the middle floors, and the other tackling the dungeons. Right! Assuming these are all wizards, they're probably ex-Hogwarts students, so they'll know the castle as well as we do--no advantage there.

"We need to lure them to one place--the Great Hall will be best--and hold them until the Aurors get here. Any thoughts?"

"Guerilla warfare!" Pansy said eagerly. "We have to harass and herd them. Small group ambushes. Can we do that?"

They decided they could. The Gryffindors would take the towers while the Ravenclaws secured the middle floors and the Slytherins cleared the dungeons. The Hufflepuffs were to set up a fortified position in the Great Hall, lying in wait for the arriving raiders.

Finally, Neville turned to Marie, saying, "Rogue, you three Americans are welcome to stay with the rest of Gryffindor. But, you do have different abilities. Is there a better way we can use you?"

Rogue nodded. "I've checked, and our communicators work in here; they're combat gear - EMP shielded. We have four. I'll stay with you. If I give one to these Hufflepuff guys, Colossus goes with the Slytherins, and Iceman with the Ravenclaws, we can stay in touch."

Once everything was decided, things moved quickly.

In the dungeons, Peter and Pansy led a group of determined Slytherins. The attackers had made the mistake of believing the students were locked in their Common Room. After a few skirmishes, the students gained the upper hand.

Everything was going according to plan as Pansy and Peter proceeded along a corridor toward the entrance of the dungeons. This was a large chamber where the main staircase from the upper levels ended. The students had managed to push back the invaders this far, but they still needed to force them up the stairs.

Pansy wondered about the young man beside her. He was big, yes, but otherwise wasn't so different from any other student. Like many of the Slytherins, she had been less than thrilled by the decision to invite non-Wizards into the school. She still had no clue as to what a Mutant was; she had first heard the word four weeks ago, and there was nothing in the Library about such people. The three strangers had certainly fit right into Gryffindor, which made her distrust them. Pansy had heard Draco raging about the way Drake had humiliated him, and she had tried to make sense of Crabbe's and Goyle's gibbering accounts of their encounter with Rasputin. She had also heard, at third or fourth hand, about what had gone on in the forest.

But, there was no substitute for experience. Two attackers jumped in front of them in the corridor. Pansy nearly leapt out of her skin when Colossus transformed into his armoured form. A woman collapsed as her companion's Stun spell rebounded from Colossus' chest. The big Gryffindor stepped forward and knocked out the other with an open-handed slap. For all his size, Colossus was quick and precise in his movements, impossibly strong, and he seemed immune to magic. Perhaps Dumbledore was not such a fool as some made him out to be; if other Mutants were as formidable as this one, they were better as friends than enemies!

Now, as they ran through the archway into the ante-room, Pansy heard a whistling sound. A huge shadow loomed over them. Colossus turned and shoved her behind him, shielding her with his body. There was a crash and a splintering sound, then the American released her. Nearby stood a hulking, ugly Troll, staring stupidly at the stump of his club.

Colossus grinned down at Pansy. "Y'know, I almost felt that!" He turned to the Troll. "Look, big fella, I've got no quarrel with you, and you obviously don't know what you've gotten yourself into. Just back off, and we'll say no more about it, OK?"

The Troll's response was to roar, toss away his broken club, and heave his fist at Colossus. There was a mighty thud; Colossus flew across the room to crash into the wall. The Troll howled with pain as it dimly realised that punching steel hurt. Colossus scrambled to his feet, his face set. "OK, now you've made me mad, pal!" he said, and charged.

Neither the students nor the raiders could do anything but watch the ensuing battle. It was an awesome, brutal scrap. The Troll was much larger than Colossus, but apparently no stronger, and though his hide was thick, he was not made of metal. He fought stupidly, using stubborn savagery to withstand blows that would have shattered stone. Colossus landed a final blow that was truly spectacular; Pansy would never have believed a nearly seven-foot-tall metal man could leap gracefully into the air to deliver a decisive flying kick! That ended it; the Troll collapsed in a heap.

The raiders stood gaping at their secret weapon lying in a battered lump on the floor. Pansy took in the situation at a glance and yelled, "Forward, Hogwarts!" Under a barrage of curses, and with the invincible metal giant advancing on them, the raiders fell back to the stairs. "Keep pushing!" urged Pansy, "We've got them!"

She was right. The raiders were in full retreat, making for the Hall, where they promptly ran into a volley of spells from the well-entrenched Hufflepuffs. Pansy sealed the door behind the last of the raiders and turned to her troops. "Right! We have to get round to the other side and reinforce the Hufflepuffs quickly. That lot are as bloody-minded and stubborn as anyone can be, but they don't have our skill."

As the Slytherins headed toward the back door of the Hall, Colossus caught Pansy's arm. "Look, I think I can get us some reinforcements. I'll see you in there, soon!" Then he was off, moving toward the front exit. Pansy shrugged, she was not even going to try to give orders to that one--he was a typical Gryffindor, lots of guts but no great quantity of brains. She took off after the other Slytherins.

Once outside, Peter switched to his human form so he could run at top speed. He sprinted across the grounds to Hagrid's hut. As he went, he triggered his communicator. "Colossus to Rogue. The Slytherins have trapped the raiders in the Hall."

"Roger that, the Hufflepuffs just reported in. Are you going to reinforce?"

"The Slytherins are. I'm going to see if I can get Hagrid's help. He'll come in handy if it turns into a brawl in there."

"OK. Be careful. The rest of us are on schedule. Rogue out."

Peter had reached the hut. Inside, Hagrid was pounding heavily on the back of the door and yelling, "Dang it! Jus' let me out of this an' somebody's goin' to get a slappin'! Teach 'em to mess with Hogwarts, I will!

Colossus grinned. He approached the door and called loudly, "Professor Hagrid?"

"Who's tha'?"

"It's Col...Peter Rasputin, Professor."

"Peter! Dumbledore tol' me the students were doin' somethin'. I can't open this flamin' door! Can you?"

"I'll try. Stand back."

Colossus switched to his armoured form, then kicked hard at the centre of the door. The spell on the door was designed to keep things in, not out. The door splintered, and Hagrid peered through the frame in astonishment. "How'd you do tha'? What've you done to yerself?"

Hagrid had only glimpsed Peter in his Colossus form once, at the edge of the Forest, when he'd been preoccupied with the distressed and fainting Marie. Now, Hagrid goggled as Peter shrugged and changed back to his human shape.

"Nature did it to me, Professor. I just make the best use of it I can!" Quickly, Colossus filled Hagrid in on the situation, ending by saying, "... so I don't know the number of raiders, but there are lots more students. All the spell-slinging will kinda stalemate after a while, I bet. So, I get the feeling that things are gonna get physical down in the Hall sooner or later, and that's where we come in. You up for a scrap, Professor?"

Hagrid smiled broadly and nodded. "Yer do ask some daft questions, lad! Just a tic!" He stepped back into the shack, coming out moments later carrying a blackthorn cudgel that looked like about half a tree. "Right, Peter! I know a way into the Hall without goin' in the main doors. Let's gi' them buggers a bit of a surprise, shall we?"

The two big men set off across the grounds.

Inside the castle, Iceman was discovering how very different Ravenclaws were from Gryffindors. He had been assigned to a team that included Padma Patil, Luna Lovegood and Cho Chang. Padma was the only Ravenclaw who had any idea of what Iceman could do.

"I've done a bit of research on Mutants," Padma explained. "I've studied Muggle books and magazines on the subject. But, theory is one thing; practical application, another."

Ravenclaw tactics consisted of getting ahead of the raiders and constructing complex barriers and illusions, to deceive them and to force them into taking the desired direction. These students appeared to be highly skilled in more complicated and difficult magic. Iceman remembered that Ravenclaw was the brainy House. It seemed he wouldn't have much to do.

Still, when half a dozen raiders appeared from an unexpected direction, the Ravenclaws were glad to have the Mutant Gryffindor with them. The intruders soon found that a wand coated with a two-inch-thick layer of ice was not much use. A flurry of Stun spells and a few well-placed punches and kicks from Iceman soon finished them off.

Just when Iceman thought the fight was over, Luna said, "I smell smoke! Are they trying to burn down the school?"

Iceman and his team dashed along the corridor, following the odour. The source was a smouldering tapestry, beside which stood a man-like figure made of flickering red and orange flames.

"Fire elemental!" gasped Cho. "Those idiots! You can't control a fire elemental. It'll reduce the castle to ashes!"

"Not if I can help it," said Iceman, gritting his teeth. "Stay with me, girls. This could be a tough one."

He stepped forward, raised his hands, and the battle began. The girls watched Iceman and the elemental pitting their essential natures against each other. Fire flared at Iceman, to vanish in clouds of steam, while he sent ice to encase the elemental in a shell that melted as fast as he could form it. The corridor filled with a thick fog, and the floor and walls ran with water.

Then, the battle changed. Gradually, the fog thinned, and the water dried. The elemental's flame seemed to sink, and it was slow to melt the ice forming around it. But, at the same time, Iceman began to falter. His face was flushed, and he was sweating.

Luna felt her throat grow dry; it was hard to swallow. Padma stepped close behind Iceman, whispering, "Bob, what's wrong? Can we help?"

"Water!" he croaked. "I need moisture to freeze the air. This thing and I have evaporated all the water around us."

"Cho, Luna, we need to make it rain in here!" shouted Padma.

With the three of them working together, the spell took only moments. Clouds formed close to the ceiling, and rain began to fall. The water seemed to hurt the elemental, but Iceman's power redoubled. He froze the rain to ice as it struck his opponent. After that, the end came quickly. The elemental's flames shrank, then died. Seconds later, all that remained of the fire elemental was a wispy vapour sealed in a pillar of ice.

Iceman staggered for a moment, then looked up to the ceiling to let the rain wash over his hot face until it revived him. The three witches clustered around solicitously, asking, "Are you alright? Do you need anything?"

"I'm fine. I could use a drink of water, though," Iceman admitted, with a laugh.

Cho transfigured a nearby flower vase into a bottle of water. Bobby sipped it gratefully. "That's better," he said. "Let's get on with the job!"

In the tower, Rogue had been hanging back, content to serve as a communications link. Her power, she thought, would be of little use here. Seamus suggested she take the abilities of one of the bound raiders, but Rogue refused. 'Borrowing' Mutant or natural powers was one thing, but Rogue didn't think she could handle years of acquired skills. Besides, the other Gryffindors had matters well in hand, it seemed, as they staged a series of lightning strikes on the confused intruders.

It turned out that Rogue was far more than dead weight. Neville and Lavender consulted her on tactics and manoeuvres, seeking her advice and experience. "You're the nearest thing we have to Harry," Lavender pointed out. Rogue decided she would have to have a long talk with Harry, one of these days. She knew he was being good to Kitty; her friend's letters praised him to the skies. Now, she realised Harry was something of a warrior, too.

During the final push to force the raiders into the Hall, Rogue's keen ears caught something odd. A familiar voice, shouting words with a note of desperation. She called to Neville, "You guys carry on. I've got to follow somethin' up! I'll see y'all in the Hall!"

She dashed down a side corridor. As she did, the voice became clearer--it was Professor Snape! Rogue heard him shout, "Expecto Patronum!", and a silvery glimmer illuminated the scene. A towering form in black hovered over the crouching figure of Snape, who was holding his glowing wand aloft. Rogue saw hopeless determination on Snape's face.

"Hold on, Professor! I'm comin'!" Rogue yelled, pulling off a glove as she charged.

The other figure swung to face her. Rogue felt a morbid darkness reaching for her mind. She saw her first boyfriend, collapsing into a coma after she kissed him. She saw Magneto's gloating face, and Logan's with pain wracking his features. Everything that was good in her life seemed to be wrenching away.

She gritted her teeth and thrust her bare hand into the shadow of the hood. Her fingers brushed jagged fangs and cold, scaly skin. Then...

Snape heard the Dementor give a shrill screech of torment, before it crumpled to the stone floor, revealing another figure rising. The dark hair with its distinctive white streak identified the apparition as Marie D'Ancanto, but her skin was grey and her eyes were deep, black pits.

"Miss D'Ancanto?" Snape gasped.

The figure opened its fanged mouth. "Rogue--call me Rogue." The hoarse voice added, "Professor, we have to get to the Hall while I can still use this thing's power!"

Snape didn't argue. He had read the files on Rogue. Her power could not last long. "Follow me!", he shouted, and set off at a run. Rogue glided along after him.

To Rogue it seemed that being this thing was easier than being Jack had been, or anyone else she had used her power on. The Dementor had no personality, no real will, to struggle against her. But it was cold and empty and so very hungry. It wanted light, it wanted warmth, it wanted...to feel. It needed sensations, emotions and memories, to savour them for a moment, before they faded into the darkness that had spawned its kind.

Snape had led her to the foot of a stairway. "This," he told her, "leads to the gallery above the Hall. Go up there and wait for my signal."

In the Hall, the students were crowded behind a stout barricade the Hufflepuffs had constructed in front of the main doors. The raiders were free to move about the Hall, but as yet had been unable to penetrate the fortification. The Prefects had arranged matters so that the students took turns defending the barricade, allowing everyone to rest. Faces looked up, surprised and relieved, when Professor Snape appeared among them.

"Quickly, we have little time! Prepare to charge on my command: Slytherins to the left, Gryffindors on the right, Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw in the centre. Mr...Iceman, stay by me and prepare to form an ice barrier when I tell you. We must confine these raiders to a smaller area."

Snape thrust his wand upward, and a bright spark shot toward the ceiling. In response, a slim figure moved down the gallery stairs. Neville gasped: The ghastly figure was Rogue! Her skin looked like death, and she radiated unnatural cold. For a moment, Neville felt deep fear and despair, but he fought against those sensations. Marie must have touched a Dementor! Neville's mouth tightened, knowing how much help the girl would need to recover from this.

Rogue directed the Dementor's hunger at the astonished raiders. The part of her that was the dark creature relished the feast; the part of her that was Marie shied away. Images ranging from petty greed to psychotic malice to pure, perverse evil flooded her mind.

The intruders' reactions shifted from astonishment to abject fear in a matter of seconds. They began to fall back, shrinking away from the terror that advanced implacably on them. One raider managed to summon a Patronus, a silver hawk that flew at Rogue, but abruptly sheered off. The Dementor within her felt a flash of fear, but Rogue steeled her will, and the Patronus, a weak one at best, could not deter her. She heard Snape howl, "Charge!"

The students stormed forward, hurling spells at the retreating raiders. Within moments, the intruders were confined to the rear third of the Hall. Snape, in the lead with Iceman beside him, commanded, "Now, young man!"

Iceman dropped to one knee and placed his hands on the floor. Professor Snape looked awestruck when a thick, chest-high fortification of ice formed across the width of the Hall. Following Snape's directions, the Slytherins, Gryffindors and Ravenclaws manned the barricade, while the Hufflepuffs secured the area behind it, trussing up fallen raiders and setting up an impromptu aid station for injured students. Cho Chang raced to the front of the Hall and opened the great doors; she wanted to make sure the Aurors could get in, and she knew a flow of cold, damp outside air would help Iceman maintain his barrier.

Rogue reached the ice barrier before she collapsed. "Marie--" Bobby turned to go to her, but Snape placed a restraining hand on his shoulder. "We need you here. Hold the barrier. I will see to her. Mr Longbottom, you and Miss Parkinson take over."

Snape crouched by the fallen Rogue and turned her over. Her skin was regaining its normal colour, though there was still a grey cast to her lips. Somewhere far away, Snape heard the shrill scream of the Dementor as it escaped into the night. Rogue was murmuring, "Cold, so cold..." Touching a hand to her cheek, Snape felt that her skin was clammy.

"Miss D'Ancanto?" he said, then, "Marie?"

Her eyes flew open, and she gasped, "Professor, you mustn't touch me!"

"What? Oh..." he looked down at his hand, then held it before her. "Skinseal Potion. I made up a batch for the Infirmary, in case you were ever injured. I went for it when all this started, expecting you to be in the thick of things." Snape let the corners of his mouth turn up. "You, Miss D'Ancanto, are almost as much trouble as Mr Potter!"

Her clear grey eyes met his shrewdly. "You like him, don't you?"

Snape drew back, considering her question. "'Whisper it not in Gath, tell it not in the towns of the Philistines'," he quoted. "I despised him at first. But, as the years passed, he proved himself worthy of grudging respect. He does, somehow, always manage to survive. And, to the Slytherin way of thinking, a knack for survival is worth something." Snape sniffed. "But, Potter is not the issue, here. How are you feeling?"

"I'm fine, Professor. A little cold, is all. That thing was so..." Rogue shuddered

"Don't think about it," Snape advised. "Dementors are hellish creatures. They--" He was interrupted by a shout from Neville. "Professor! They're going to charge the barrier."

Snape stood. Rogue pulled herself to a sitting position and extended a gloved hand. "Help me up, and I'll keep fighting. I don't have a wand, but I can use my fists and feet better than anyone here except Colossus."

Just then, a concealed door at the back of the Hall crashed open, and a large, silvery figure dashed through. "Speak of the Devil," said Snape.

The raiders were utterly unprepared for an attack from the rear. Colossus and Hagrid crashed into them like a pair of battering rams. Hagrid's enormous club whistled through the air, laying out five at a stroke. Colossus struck right and left, using only a fraction of his strength, but causing damage from the spells that ricocheted back on the casters.

The students along the barrier began to lob spells into the now utterly confused mass of raiders. The final stroke came when a squadron of Aurors flew in through the open front door and zipped across the hall on their brooms, showering spells and hexes down on the utterly demoralised invaders.

What followed was a blur for Rogue. The Aurors, some kind of Wizard SWAT team, she thought, immediately took charge. Somehow, the rest of the staff were released. She remembered Dumbledore clasping her hand in both of his, saying, "Well done, indeed, Marie! Charles will be proud of you." Stern-faced McGonagall was there--smiling!--and adding her praise. "Miss D'Ancanto, you and your friends have proved yourselves true Gryffindors once again," McGonagall said.

Then, with no memory of how she had got there, she was standing in the Gryffindor Common Room. Neville and Pansy were shaking hands. "Nice work, Longbottom! But this still doesn't mean we like you!"

He grinned. "Wouldn't have it any other way. If Gryffindors and Slytherins started being friends, it would be the end of civilisation as we know it." Pansy snorted with amusement, nodded once to Peter, and left.

Standing apart from the celebrating students, Marie felt nothing. Nothing mattered. She had not been this depressed since she had fled her parents' home. She realised the others were watching her.

"It's the Dementor," Neville was saying to Lavender. "The effects of actually touching one of those things must be horrible."

Bobby looked as if his heart might break. "Marie...?" He took her in his arms and kissed her lightly on the lips. She had not prepared, and her power stirred. It had only been a second's contact, but she felt a flow of warmth from Bobby's feelings--he loved her so much! Marie felt a flicker of joy.

Lavender, who was watching her intently, muttered, "Of course!" The Gryffindor girl stepped forward and stroked Marie's face. The sensation of goodness and hope happened again! Marie had never realised how fond of her this reserved English girl had become.

Neville swore softly, "Oh, bloody hell! I'm a complete idiot!" He went to Marie, put his arms round her shoulders and kissed her lightly on the cheek, then stepped back, blushing furiously. Suddenly, everyone was crowding around Marie, hugging her. Dean and Seamus both kissed her as Neville had done; Parvati pressed her cheek gently against Marie's, as did Ginny. With every touch, Marie revived, feeling her strength and spirits rouse until, when Peter swept her into one of his bear-hugs and kissed the top of her head, she was back!

Marie stood there, looking at them all, and blinking back tears. This was what the exchange was all about--new friends becoming as close and as dear to her as any of the X-Men.

Neville smiled. He quoted her own words, "Whether you're a Gryffindor or an X-Man, the rules are the same. We take care of our own."

Chapter 10. Special Relationships

Winter gave way to spring. The months had been full and happy for the students at Xavier's. The highlight had come one week after the fight with the Hellfire Club, when the Professor closed the school for repairs, and took students and faculty on holiday.

They chartered a plane, flew south to Florida, and took over most of a small motel in the resort town of Orlando. The three Hogwarts youngsters had been wondering how all this was to be paid for, especially since they each received a set of theme park tickets and a generous pocket money allowance. Cyclops explained that Professor Xavier was a wealthy man, Professor McCoy had made a considerable fortune from selling a number of inventions, and that additional support for the special week was given to the school both by Roberto's parents and multi-millionaire Xavier's alumnus Warren Worthington III, the former X-Man Angel.

The holiday was extraordinary, filled with wonders. Neither Harry nor Ron had ever seen a theme park. Hermione informed them, in a rather superior tone, that her parents had once taken her to Alton Towers, then wished she hadn't, as she grasped the true scale of Disney World, Seaworld, and Universal Studios. While Harry and Ron discovered rollercoasters, Kitty and Hermione discovered at least three new varieties of nausea. On the plus side, the two girls found a factory outlet mall, and the boys found out how being a pack-mule feels. By Rahne's calculations, both Sam and Ron managed to eat their own body-weight in steak and lobster by the end of the week.

Too soon, it was back to Xavier's, the everyday business of classes and the serious business of having fun. Harry was becoming an expert skateboarder. He and Roberto finally induced Hermione and Ron to have a try. Ron, by his own admission, was too big and heavy to do well. Hermione proved unexpectedly agile at Muggle sports, especially after switching to rollerblades, which she found more comfortable. Ron and Professor X continued to play chess regularly, and Ororo introduced Ron to the ancient Japanese game of Go. Hermione discovered the delights of the Internet, which she thought an excellent tool for study. The boys improved their skills at video gaming, though Hermione still professed to find them boring until the lads caught her playing Doom late one night on the PC.

For Harry, of course, there was Kitty, constantly at his side. Neither of them were fools; they knew the clock was running on their time together, and they were determined not to waste a moment. Hermione and Dani watched happily as their two formerly lonely friends learned to open their hearts.

There had been one shock, however. One Saturday evening, Ron had dashed into the Rec room looking like his own ghost. "What's up?" Hermione had asked. Ron had replied with a single word. "Snape."

Just then, the Potions Master, followed by Logan, had entered the room. To his students' astonishment, Snape was wearing jeans, trainers, a black polo shirt and a leather jacket. His lank hair was tied back in a neat ponytail and he looked...cheerful.

"Well, well, good evening, Miss Granger, Mr Weasley, Mr Potter. Are you not going to introduce me to your colleagues? Surely, we have taught you better manners at Hogwarts? And do close your mouth, Mr Weasley, something unpleasant may fly in there."

Harry recovered sufficiently to make introductions. When it came to Kitty, Snape held her hand in his for a little longer than the others.

"So, the famous Miss Pryde, the young lady who has so captured our Mr Potter's er, interest. It appears, my dear, that even you have been unable to keep our most notorious student out of trouble."

Kitty met his eyes squarely. "Professor Snape, it's great to meet Marie's favorite teacher."

To Harry's astonishment, Snape flushed, harrumphed loudly, and let go of Kitty's hand. Ron murmured quietly, "Zap. Nice one, Kitty." For some reason, Harry felt compelled to save Snape further embarrassment, so quickly introduced Dani.

Hermione asked, "Why are you here, Professor? Are you checking on us?"

"Good heavens, no, Miss Granger. I am here on a social call to my friend, Logan. We are about to repair to a local hostelry, where I intend to find out exactly what a 'boilermaker' is."

Logan, who had stepped outside to speak to someone, came back in. "Severus, cab's here."

"Please ask him to wait, Logan. Mr Potter, a word in private, if you please?"

Harry showed Snape to the empty Quiet Lounge, closing the door behind them. As he turned around, Snape spun, whipping out his wand. "Legilimens!"

Harry's shields snapped up instantly; weeks of practice with Dani and Professor X had paid off. Snape actually smiled. "Excellent, Mr Potter! It appears Professor Dumbledore and I were right about this scheme--so much for Professor McGonagall's misgivings."

Another day, there had been the race. Harry and Ron were busy giving broom rides to the younger students one Sunday, when Storm came onto the veranda, dressed in jogging clothes. She hailed Harry.

"I've been watching you," she said, "and I think it's about time we found out what that broom can do." She pointed across the grounds to where a granite spire poked up beyond a line of trees. "Through the woods and once round the folly, then back here. Are you game?"

Harry grinned. "Is the Pope Catholic?" Storm nodded with satisfaction. "Sean, come and start us," she said.

By now, all the students and the staff had gathered round. Sean Cassidy stepped forward, then floated gently off the ground. "To your marks," he called. Storm sprang into the air, rising to hover even with Banshee. Harry kicked off and floated to the same height. Banshee made sure they were level, calling Ron in to check from the other side. When he was sure, Banshee called, "Get set." Storm tensed; Harry leaned forward on his Firebolt. "GO." They were off..

Storm took the lead, but only for a few seconds before Harry reached her. They were neck-and-neck as they approached the woods, but Harry lost ground in the slalom through the trees. Storm knew the woods better than he did. Once through, he caught up with her again and, in a risky maneuver that made Ororo gasp, gained the lead by swinging round the folly so tightly he almost touched it. Storm was matching his pace when they reached the trees again, but this time Harry knew the route and stayed with her through the wood.

They exploded out of the forest to a chorus of whoops and yells from the crowd gathered on the veranda. Everyone seemed to be cheering on both contestants impartially. Banshee and Ron were holding a tape stretched between them. The lead changed several times as Storm and Harry streaked down the final stretch, but the tip of his Firebolt broke the tape at exactly the same moment as Storm's outstretched hands. The crowd went wild.

"Dead heat!" exclaimed Banshee. "Nose to nose."

Both racers dropped to the ground. Storm, panting but elated, stepped up to Harry and, to his intense embarrassment, threw her arms round him in a hearty hug.

"Goddess!" she said. "That was fine flying. Nobody's ever held me to a draw before."

Out of the corner of his eye, Ron saw Kurt Wagner take a five dollar bill out of his pocket and pass it to Logan, who accepted it with a grin. Then Kitty and Hermione were taking turns hugging Harry and, after that, Dani and Rahne got in on the act, while the boys were thumping his back and the younger students were jumping and whooping like mad things.

The days passed swiftly. As the end of term approached, the three friends found that they were missing Hogwarts and their old companions more and more, but at the same time dreading the time when they would leave their new ones. They mused on the events of the term, recounting their favorite stories. There had been much excitement, and not a little danger amidst the enjoyment and the new discoveries. Finally, Harry sat back and asked his friends, "OK, then. What's the biggest, best, most important thing you'll take back with you to Hogwarts?"

Hermione and Ron locked eyes for a moment, before Ron looked directly at Harry. "You," was what he said.

"Huh?" Harry was puzzled. "But, I came with you."

"No," Ron shook his head, "the Boy Who Lived came with us. The bloke who's coming back with us is Harry--my mate, Harry--the kid who bought everything off the trolley on the Hogwarts Express to share with a lad he'd only just met. That's the Harry I'm taking back--the one I was scared I'd never see again."

Stunned, Harry turned to Hermione, who nodded. "He's right. We thought we'd lost you. After the Ministry of Magic last year, you were this angry stranger. But, the Harry who fought the White Queen was the boy who found the Philosopher's Stone."

She reached out her hands to Ron and Harry. "It's just the way it used to be--the way it was when you two came charging into the girls' toilet to rescue me from that Troll. You were two pint-sized knights in rather grubby armour, but so valiant! My heroes...my friends."

Harry cupped his chin in his hand. "You know, you're right. Just being here, with nobody expecting me to save the world or to fulfill the Prophecy, I've felt better than I have since...since our Fourth Year."

A few days later, Professor Xavier announced that, in honor of their three guests, a dance would be held the night before Harry and his friends were to go home. That revelation caused a flurry of activity. It was absolutely vital, the girls insisted, to visit the mall; none of them had a thing to wear!

Harry and Ron were a little worried about clothes. Neither of them had brought dress robes with them. Ron, however, saw this as no bad thing. "It might be all right at Hogwarts or a Wizard ball, but here I'd end up feeling like a trans...trans...transistor?"

"Transvestite, you git," said Harry with a grin. "I suppose we'd better look into buying suits. I'll ask Roberto. He's what they call a sharp dresser."

Kitty and Hermione had other ideas, however, steering their menfolk firmly into a chain store. "Plain suits, never mind the color, just make sure they fit. A new shirt and a tie, apiece. And hurry up," Kitty told them. "Hermione and I have dresses to choose."

Sheepishly, the boys did as they were told. They got what was required, only to have their purchases confiscated by the girls. "We'll give you these back when it's time to dress for the dance," Hermione declared. "After we've made a few improvements."

"Dead right," supplied Kitty. "Now go and play video games till we come for you." The boys went for coffee, instead, spending a companionable hour discussing the absolute impossibility of any man ever understanding a woman.

The night before the dance, Kitty took Harry to their tree and said. "Harry, can you do some magic to make sure we're private here?"

Mildly puzzled, Harry Shrouded the area under the tree. He turned to see Kitty staring at him, tears leaking down her cheeks. She turned away, covering her face with her hands. "Oh...damn! I promised myself I wouldn't do this."

He went to her, and took her in his arms, pulling her head onto his shoulder. She held him tightly and cried quietly for a while. He was feeling more than a little tearful himself, and swallowed hard. Kitty murmured into his neck, "Harry, it's OK for guys to cry when they're hurting."

He was, so he did. Afterwards, they both felt better, and sat together on the grass, Kitty leaning back against Harry, his strong arms round her. She spoke into the stillness.

"I love you, Harry, I always will. These weeks have been special and wonderful, but we both knew it wasn't going to be forever, didn't we?"

"I suppose so," he sighed, "but I didn't want to think about it."

"Well, we think and talk about it tonight, so it won't spoil tomorrow, OK? Now look, Harry, we're both in the same danger. Tell me what it is?"

"That we'll use each other as an excuse not to get involved with anyone else?"

"Got it in one. It'd be so easy for you to tell Ginny--don't look like that. I'm not blind or deaf, Harry. Every time you talk about home, you mention her, and the look in your face..." Kitty squeezed his hand. "When you go back, it'd be easy to tell Ginny that you're with me, so you can't date her. You'd be lonely and sad. So, don't do it, OK?"

"You mean we're finished, Kitty?"

"Not now, not tonight. But the day after tomorrow, when you go back to Hogwarts, that's it. We'll always be special friends, Harry, but we can't pretend to be dating after you go back, for both our sakes."

"You're right," he said sadly. "We need to move on, don't we?"

"We do, but not right now. Tonight, and tomorrow night, you're mine, Harry Potter!" She turned in his arms, eyes on fire, and fastened her lips greedily on his.

On the day of the dance, the girls made a last-minute trip to the mall. Ororo loaded them into the MPV and drove them there. Scott and Logan took the boys paintballing. It was late afternoon when everybody arrived back at the school. Hermione watched in disgust as the boys, bruised, muddy, tired and elated, piled out of the Hummer.

Hermione had taken a sauna, before being oiled, moisturized and massaged. She was manicured and pedicured. Her hair had been conditioned, trimmed, curled, gelled, piled and pinned. She had been exfoliated to within an inch of her life and waxed in places she hadn't thought waxable.

"Look at them!" she sputtered, "Just look! We spend hours of torture making ourselves look good for them, and they spend the day rolling in mud and getting covered by paint and sweat."

"It's disgusting," Dani agreed. "Unfair. But, you know what's worse?"

Hermione nodded. "I do. They look so damn sexy I could rip Ron's trousers off him right now."

The boys wondered why all the girls, including Storm, were giggling as they went into the mansion.

Harry and Ron had finished showering and were relaxing when they heard pounding on their door. Hermione and Kitty stood there in dressing gowns, holding a large box each. "These are your clothes for tonight," Hermione told them. "Hang them up straight away so they don't crease. Jump to it - I want to see you do it right."

Harry's suit was dark navy blue, cut in what Kitty called "Armani style". The shirt was ivory, and the tie mixed red with silver. Ron's was camel, sharply tailored in traditional English style, to be worn over pale blue shirt. His maroon tie sported tiny gold Gryffindor lions

"These aren't the clothes we bought," Ron noticed.

"Yes, they are," asserted Kitty. "We consulted some magazines for ideas, then Hermione wriggled her nose at them."

"Waved my wand, you mean. The name's Hermione, not Samantha."

"Anyway, God alone knows what you guys would have come up with if we'd left it to you."

"We were going to ask Roberto..." Harry began.

"Uh huh. You'd end up looking like refugees from the Carnivale."

Ron sighed. "You will be assimilated..."

"...resistance is futile," finished Harry.

The ladies withdrew in high dudgeon as the boys fell about laughing. Nevertheless, they both felt very stylish as they went along the corridor to meet up with their dates. Which was a good job, as the girls looked stunning.

Hermione wore a long, black, halter-top gown whose plunging neckline revealed rather more than she would have dared without Dani's insistence. Ron's pendant glinted at her neck, and the softly draping chiffon gown flattered her trim figure. Kitty had chosen a red satin, strapless, flaring cocktail dress with a narrow, rhinestone belt buckle. More rhinestones glittered at her ears.

Ron offered Hermione his arm. "You're beautiful, and I love you," he told her proudly.

Hermione smiled. The light in her face said everything.

Harry gazed at Kitty. "No comment?" she asked, a little nervously.

"You're gorgeous," said Harry. "Pinch me! I think I'm dreaming."

She kissed him instead. Harry knew then that he was fully awake.

The ballroom at the mansion was normally used for assemblies, but tables and chairs had been grouped around the periphery and the floor had been cleared for dancing. Balloons, streamers and banners bearing messages of affectionate farewell decorated the walls and ceiling. Along one wall, a substantial buffet had been laid out. This table was flanked on one side by a disco console, manned alternately by Beast and Nightcrawler, and on the other by the staff table. The senior students made their way to the large, circular table set aside for them.

The evening began with lively music so the younger students could dance some of the excitement out of their systems. The older students sat and chatted, talking over their time together and recalling the most exciting and amusing incidents. Sam and Ron made numerous visits to the buffet table.

After an hour or so, the music stopped and Professor Xavier wheeled himself out onto the floor in front of the staff table. "If I could have your attention, please? I don't propose to keep you long. The last few months have been rather historic for this school. They mark the first exchange program between the School for Gifted Youngsters and any other school. They also mark the first time that non-Mutants have attended this institution as students.

"Hermione, Harry, Ron, I think I speak for everyone when I say that it has been a delight to have you among us, and that you will be missed. Both individually, and as a group, you have made your mark here, and you won't be forgotten. I hope you will each carry something worthwhile away with you.

"Mutants have learned to fear the prejudice and persecution of normal humans - Muggles, as everyone now seems to be calling them." This comment raised a few chuckles. Xavier smiled and continued, "It has been a refreshing and heartening change to encounter other humans who do not react to us with blind fear or hostility. Far be it from me to speak to larger issues here; this is not a symposium. What I will say is that individual friendships, as always, are to be treasured. Other than that, I can only express the hope and desire that our two communities, Mutant and Wizard, will travel down our separate paths with mutual respect and tolerance. Hermione, Harry, Ron, would you come here, please?"

As the three approached, the Professor turned to the table behind him. "I understand that your classmates have some more personal gifts to give you tomorrow, before you leave. However, on behalf of the school, we have these for you."

They were given large, leather-bound books with the X-symbol and their names embossed in gold leaf on the front. On each page of the book was a photograph of a student or member of staff, and the page was signed and included a personal message. Professor Xavier also gave them each a small box. Inside the boxes were elegant gold signet rings, with the X-logo in gold on black onyx. Each was engraved with the owner's X-Man codename and the year.

Xavier said, "Normally, class rings are only given to graduating students, but this is a special case. Think of us when you wear them."

Scott stepped forward. "Charm, Hawk, Hunter, the uniforms and equipment are yours to keep, of course. I hope you'll never need to wear them, but it'll be a comfort for us to know you have them, just in case.

"I wasn't wholly behind this scheme at first," Scott admitted. "I was wrong. Now, I'm telling you this, and you better remember it: You three are X-Men, now, and whatever or whoever else you might become, you'll always be X-Men. That means that, if ever you need us, we'll be there for you. So, take care of yourselves, remember what you've learned here, keep practicing, and don't do anything stupid. We're gonna miss you kids. Good luck!"

The next presentations were individual, and meant to reflect the interests the three had shown in their various classes. Harry was given a book entitled Philosophy for Beginners: A Reader. Hermione got a facsimile edition of Newton's Principia Mathematica, and Ron, much to his consternation, received a hardback copy of A Brief History of Time. ("And he'll still be late for class," muttered Hermione.)

The final gift was for all of them to use at Hogwarts. It was a laptop computer like the one Professor X had given to Dumbledore, EMP shielded and linked to Cerebro. "Now there'll be no excuse not to write," Xavier said significantly.

After that, the younger students, the ones under 14 or so, were sent off to bed. The music changed, and the older students and adults took to the dance floor.

Harry and Ron had both hoped to avoid dancing, but that was not to be. Hermione and Kitty dragged them onto the floor straight away. It became obvious that all the girls wanted a dance with Harry and Ron, and that all the boys were determined to dance at least once with Hermione.

To his great relief, Harry found dancing with Kitty easy and natural. He felt confident enough to circle the floor, quite formally, with Rahne. After that, he had to surrender gracefully to the importunities of another girl he knew only slightly, a tall strawberry-blonde called Alison, who would be joining the senior class in the summer, she told him.

It was different when Dani briskly intercepted him on his way back to the table. "My turn," she told Harry, leading him back onto the floor. She was wearing a soft, white, full-length gown and looked superb, so Harry really didn't mind all that much. As he reached for her hand, she laced her arms around his neck; his hands slipped naturally to her waist. Dani was taller and fuller-figured than Kitty, and the sensation of her body pressed against him was unexpected.

His reaction didn't seem unnatural to Harry. Dani was a confirmed flirt, for one thing. For another, the hours they had spent together, working on his mental shields, had brought them surprisingly close. Still...

"Don't look so worried, Harry. I'm not going to eat you or anything. I just wanted to talk a little without having to shout at you over the music. I can hardly corner you in the ladies' room," Dani quipped. "Look, about you and Kitty," she went on, seriously, "Is it OK between you? I mean have you talked?"

"We've talked. Yes, it's OK. Sad, but OK. I just wish..."

"If wishes were fishes! Harry, you've done more than you know for Kitty. Marie and I were worried she'd never be able to trust a boy again. You came along, the right guy at the right time. She's better than she was before; so are you, I'll bet. You can take that home with you - something to be proud of." Dani reached up and kissed Harry lightly on the lips. "That's to say thanks, for everything."

Ron was dancing with Kitty. He regarded her sympathetically. "You look a bit sad. Is everything all right with you and Harry?"

"Fine, Ron. We had a talk; we both know how it has to be. I only wish you could all stay a little longer."

Ron gave her hand a squeeze. "I don't know if it helps, but Hermione and I owe you a lot. Harry was getting so distant and lonely - we almost couldn't reach him for a while. You've brought him back in a way none of us could. We'll never forget that, or you."

"Look after him for me?"

"Always."

Kitty smiled. "Ron Weasley, you're a fraud!" Before he could protest, she went on. "You've got this whole Homer Simpson thing going: big, dumb Ron who can't work the CD or the VCR, who talks to game sprites and doesn't know what Spandex is. Big, dumb Ron can beat the Professor at chess two times out of three and can beat Ororo at Go! Ron, nobody beats Storm at Go.

"You always know what we're all thinking, how we all feel - you don't miss a damned trick. Marie would have seen through you in a New York minute. It took the rest of us a little longer. I wonder if Hermione knows just what she's gotten hold of?"

Ron grinned down at her. "She knows. She's always known. That's what used to drive her barmy about me when we were kids."

"She is one lucky, lucky girl. Now, give me a kiss and let's dance." Ron kissed Kitty firmly on the cheek, and then dipped her outrageously low to make her giggle.

Hermione was more than a little surprised when Logan, resplendent in a dark suit and spotless white shirt, courteously asked her to dance. She was even more surprised to find him a proficient and graceful partner.

"Where did you learn to dance?"

He shrugged. "I got no idea, darlin'. It's just somethin' I know how to do. Like if you sit me down at one of them fancy banquets, I know just the right fork to use at the right time. Charlie thinks I must have been a classy guy at one time, before my amnesia. Hard to imagine, eh?"

"Not really. Under that gruff exterior, you're always really polite--except when you're yelling at us in Danger Room."

Logan stopped dancing, telling Hermione seriously, "You three better keep practicin' your moves when you get home. Don't think I won't know, 'cause my pal Severus'll be keepin' an eye on you. And another thing: If this Voldemort character comes callin', you let me know. If I miss out on a scrap, I'm gonna be pissed."

Hermione laughed. "I promise. And you let us know if that Magneto shows up. Are you coming to see us off tomorrow?"

"Wasn't plannin' to."

"Oh, you must! It wouldn't be right without you. Only wear something waterproof. I can't answer for the other girls, but I'm sure I shall cry buckets."

The end of the evening came, too soon in one way, not soon enough in another. After a last, slow dance with their chosen partners, the students went their separate ways in couples.

Hermione and Ron found their favorite spot in the arboretum, a small, scented arbor with an ornate seat. Hermione Shrouded the entrance, then turned to look at Ron. He had taken his tie off and was standing gazing at her, with the look in his eyes he reserved only for her. Hermione realized once more that the future held no terror as long as Ron was with her. She wanted to go to him, but held back a moment.

"Ron, d'you think we've done it? Have we really got Harry, our Harry, back?"

"Between us and Kitty? Yes, love. All we have to do now is keep him. Still, we know that whatever happens..." he slipped into an outrageous cod American accent, "we can rebuild him - we have the technology."

"You've been watching too much TV," Hermione scolded.

"Well, can you suggest anything more interesting to do?" Ron challenged.

"You bet I can, bub," she replied, in a fairly good imitation of Wolverine. She stepped close, then deftly tripped him up so that he tumbled to the grass. But he was as quick as she, catching her round the waist so that she landed atop him. She lay for a moment, head on his chest, listening to his great heart's bright thunder, then she swarmed up his body and began to kiss him, slowly and tenderly.

Kitty and Harry sat under their tree, arms around each other, and kissed for a long time. When they paused, Kitty said, "Harry, I want you to promise me something. I want you to promise that when you go home, you won't go back to that Boy-Who-Lived thing. You'll have to do that soon enough, if Voldemort comes for you. But, until then, be yourself, be Harry--the boy I fell for. Promise me?"

Harry smiled at her. "I promise. Somehow, I don't think it'll be that hard. All I'll have to do is think of you."

She reached round and grabbed her evening bag. "Well, here's something to help jog your memory." She handed him a box. Inside was a man's watch.

"It's what they call an alarm chronograph," she told him. "It's shockproof, anti-magnetic and waterproof. I thought of buying you a fancy dress watch, but then I thought, if I buy you one to wear every day, maybe you'll think of me every day - and I don't want you to forget me. Look on the back."

On the back plate was engraved KP to HP with love. Always friends. Harry thanked Kitty with a kiss, then plucked a small velvet bag from his pocket, handing it to her. The bag contained a delicate silver bracelet, decorated with tiny flowers picked out in blue stones.

"The flowers are forget-me-nots," said Harry. "The bracelet's enchanted. I had Hermione and Professor X help me with the charm. If you wear the bracelet, put your other hand over it, and say my name, it'll open a mind-link between us. Just for a few minutes, but we'll be able to say hello, or tell each other something important. It's not for every day, though. We have the computer and email for that. But, if you really need to talk to me, you'll always be able to. If you're wearing the bracelet, I'll always be able to find you."

Kitty fastened Harry's gift on her wrist, then put her arms around Harry. "Thank you, Harry. Now, that's enough talk," she decided, and smothered his reply with her lips.

The morning came. Harry and his friends shared a last breakfast with the Xavier's students. Many of the younger children stopped by their table to say goodbye and to offer small gifts of pictures or poems that they had drawn or written themselves. It was touching, and Hermione's eyes were misting up when Roberto led them into the Quiet Lounge, where still more gifts were laid out. Harry was given a brand-new skateboard; Ron an electronic chess set which Hermione had enchanted to work off magic rather than batteries, and Hermione received jewelry and cosmetics. ("Don't you dare go all nerdy again, after all our hard work!" Dani said sternly.) As a group, the three were given a CD player and a large stack of CDs reflecting their varied musical tastes. In return, they gave each of their friends an album of Wizard photos and a magic compass whose four points were labeled Danger, Safety, Friends and Home.

It was time to go up to their rooms and collect their luggage. They met with their friends and the staff one last time in Xavier's office. True to her prediction, Hermione cried, and so did the other girls. The girls exchanged hugs and kisses with everyone. The boys blinked a lot and cleared their throats.

"Well?" said Roberto to Harry and Ron. "Is it stiff Brit handshakes or awkward American guy-hugs?" It was hugs in the end, and not so very awkward, at that.

The staff said farewell, rather more formally, though Storm did go so far as to hug each of them, and Hermione insisted on hugging all the staff, even gruff Logan and a rather pleased Professor Xavier.

Kitty pulled Harry to one side. "I'm afraid I'm a greedy girl, Harry. One more kiss?"

It went on a long time, and neither of them would ever forget it, but it was finally over. In a corner of the office, three figures appeared, all, for some reason, howling with laughter. Marie came over to Harry. "We have to talk. Professor, give us a minute?"

Xavier nodded. Harry and Marie drew off a little way and talked for a few minutes. Nobody heard what they said, but Ron, looking at them, realized that they were two of a kind. As they came back, Marie turned to Harry, again. "Write me, OK? Keep me in the loop, Harry."

"I will. You keep me up to date, too."

"Bet on it, sugah," Marie told Harry. They shook hands, beginning a friendship that was to last the rest of their lives.

Then, there was the familiar swirl of the Portkey, and Dumbledore's study appeared around Harry, Ron and Hermione. Dumbledore was standing by his desk. "Welcome back," he said. "I trust you had a memorable experience. Must be strange to be back at Hogwarts where nothing exciting ever happens," Dumbledore said, smiling.

Chapter 11: Farewells and Homecomings

The raid was the major topic of conversation at Hogwarts for at least the next week. Students who had led the resistance were lionised by the younger ones, and received equal measures of congratulation and reproof from the staff.

Marie, Peter and Bobby were singled out for particular attention, rapidly discovering that their exploits had become the subject of more than a few tall tales. It seemed that Peter had single-handedly defeated at least a dozen trolls before beating the majority of the raiders senseless. Bobby had apparently prevented the raiders from escaping by sealing the Castle inside a gigantic iceberg, while Marie, wielding the power of ten Dementors, had terrified those intruders Peter hadn't pummelled into a state of near-catatonia. These stories persisted despite the evidence that Professor Snape and many of the senior students had actually driven the raiders to the point of surrender.

Students who had participated in the evening's festivities found all this howlingly funny, of course, except for Peter, who had gained an admirer he didn't really want. By the night of the raid, Kylie Barrett had almost stopped worshipping her gigantic rescuer. Now she was following Peter around like a puppy, again. Peter couldn't bring himself to be unkind to the child, and Ginny didn't help matters by sympathising with Kylie. Ginny reminded Peter that she'd had a massive crush on a hero not so very long ago! More surprising was the fact that many Slytherins had begun to greet Peter, if not with friendliness, then at least with respect.

Real facts about the raid were hard to come by. The staff was close mouthed about the whole thing, but rumour had it that the Minister of Magic himself had had a conference with Dumbledore about the matter. In the end, Professor Dumbledore had invited the Prefects into his study to set the record straight.

"They were Death Eaters," Neville told his friends afterwards. "It seems He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is desperate to get his filthy hands on Harry-sees him as some sort of arch-enemy or something."

"You know, darling," put in Lavender, "Harry is the Boy Who Lived. It was Harry who discovered You-Know-Who was still alive, and it's been Harry who's put a spike in all his plans over the last few years."

"There is that, love. Anyway, it seems that the Death Eaters didn't believe that Harry had left the country. They thought Harry was hiding somewhere in the school, so they raided us to capture or to kill him.

"It also looks like they knew something about you," Neville went on, speaking to the three Americans. "The raiders intended to kidnap at least one of you. They wanted to find out who, or rather what, you are."

"They sure found out, didn't they?" quipped Bobby.

"Did they ever!" said Marie.

Eventually, things settled down and life at Hogwarts returned to normal. "Or, at least," remarked Bobby, "what passes for normal around here."

Rogue was determined to perform well in Potions while still trying with every charm and wile she could muster to humanise Professor Snape. She had some success with the first goal, but the jury was still out in the second. Bobby found his niche in Herbology; his father enjoyed gardening, and a green thumb seemed to run in the family. Peter found Care of Magical Creatures classes enjoyable. Even the boldest and most ill-tempered beasts hesitated to challenge him, and Peter's deep, slow voice, often speaking in Russian, seemed to have a soothing effect on animals.

The days flew by. A week before the end of term, the Americans learned that it was time for them to go home.

After the Mutants' final Potions class, something extraordinary occurred; Snape said to Marie, "Miss D'Ancanto, a word with you in private, if you please?" Waiting until the other students filed out, Snape motioned Marie to his desk at the front of the room, and waved toward a flask and a scroll.

"Er...Marie," Snape began in a low voice, "I have not forgotten that I owe you a considerable personal debt from the night of the raid. I have also noted, with some small amusement, your attempts to penetrate what you seem to regard as a façade on my part. Let me assure you, young lady, there is no sweet, timid soul hiding beneath this acidic surface, any more than there is a gentle, kindly person hidden deep inside my friend and colleague, Logan."

Liar, thought Marie, on both counts, but she said nothing.

Snape went on, "In recognition of your remarkable achievements, and as a token of my gratitude and respect, allow me to give you these. The flask contains Skinseal Potion. One drop will last for an hour; three will protect for twelve hours. I do not advise you to take it yourself, as I have no way of knowing how it will react with your mutation; however, it will prove useful for anyone needing to administer medical treatment to you." Snape allowed himself a faint smile. "I daresay that young Mr Drake will also find a use for it.

"The scroll contains the instructions for the potion. Your Professor McCoy assures me that he can obtain the ingredients, and you have become sufficiently competent in potion brewing to make it up as needed." Snape paused for a long moment before saying brusquely, "Now, you had best get along, Miss D'Ancanto, or you will be late for your next class."

Marie couldn't resist. She darted forward and flung her arms around a severely embarrassed Snape. "Thanks, Professor. Thanks for everything," she said warmly.

"For Heaven's sake, Miss D'Ancanto!" Snape said, shoving her away. "Go on with you! This is entirely beyond the pale."

Marie collected her gifts and headed for the door, but just before she left, she heard Snape murmur, "Take care, Marie." She turned and smiled from ear to ear.

Their final Hogwarts dinner was a special Farewell Feast. The three young Mutants were highly pleased and touched by it. The house-elves had gone to a lot of trouble to create what they hoped were traditional American dishes. There was gumbo and clam chowder, hot dogs, cheeseburgers, pizza, fried chicken, chilli, and French fries. For dessert there were chocolate-chip cookies, brownies, ice cream in quite extraordinary flavours and, of course, apple pie. The meal was very exotic for the Hogwarts students, who enjoyed it for that reason. The Hall itself had been decorated for the occasion with the usual House banners interspersed with the Stars and Stripes.

Professor Dumbledore made a short speech, wishing the three visitors well and good luck. Each of them was given a Gryffindor scarf and badge, and they were to keep their robes, of course. Marie received a certificate for Progress in Potions, Bobby for Herbology, and Peter for Care of Magical Creatures.

Finally, the students made their way back to Gryffindor Tower. Their Housemates presented them with albums of wizard photos and with personal gifts. Peter got a Wizard Chess set, specially enchanted so that they would work properly for him. ("But only if you're playing," Neville warned.) Bobby was given a silver flask with a cap at either end. If he opened one end, it released a rain spell. The other end was a never-empty drinking water flask. Marie received a little crystal sphere whose use wasn't immediately apparent.

Lavender explained, "We've each of us held this while we thought about you. If you touch it and think of one of us, the sphere will give you a feeling from us. It should help if you ever get down in the dumps, again."

Marie had done her best not to sniffle all through the feast and the presents. But when Neville, with a sad little smile, handed her a last mug of Hogwarts cocoa, she broke down completely. Within moments Lavender and Ginny were crying, and even stoic Parvati was in floods.

After a while, the Common Room emptied until only Kylie, Ginny and Peter were left. At Ginny's prompting, Peter gave Kylie a gentle hug and a little kiss on the forehead; a dazzled Kylie floated away to bed. Ginny sat on Peter's lap, fingering the silver locket he had given her earlier in the evening, noting that he was wearing the enchanted St Christopher medal she had given him.

She looked up at his face, "Peter?"

"Yes, babe?"

"Thanks."

"For what?"

"For being Peter."

"You're welcome. Thanks for being Ginny."

They kissed for a little longer, and then went off to bed. It wasn't until she was hidden in her own four-poster--and quite certain the other girls were asleep--that Ginny allowed herself to cry.

Came the morning, and the three Americans had to leave early, because of the time difference. They said a fond farewell to their Wizard friends and proceeded to Professor Dumbledore's study. Here, the Professor bade them a final goodbye, urging them to remember that they would always be welcome at Hogwarts and to write often. They arranged themselves around the Portkey.

"Now, then," said Dumbledore, rummaging on his desk, "where did I put that keyword? Ah, here we are." He picked up a small piece of parchment, looked Bobby directly in the eye, winked, and said clearly, "Energise."

Rogue hoped that laughing during teleportation wasn't dangerous.

Harry, Hermione and Ron arrived back in the Gryffindor Common Room to a hearty welcome. Ginny knew at once that something had changed; Harry greeted her with a quick, nervous hug and a shy kiss on the cheek. Then he rather took the edge off it by greeting Lavender, Parvati and some of the other girls the same way.

Ron studied Neville and Lavender, standing carefully a little distance from each other. Before anyone could say a word, he asked, "So, how long has this been going on?"

Of course, everyone simply had to know everything that had happened all at once. Hardly any sentence was finished before someone broke in with a question. Amid the chatter, Ginny got another clue about how much her friends had changed when Malfoy and his gang confronted them in a corridor.

Draco had had a bad term. People he still regarded as Muggles had humiliated him twice. He had failed his mother, and the consequences of that were likely to be unpleasant. Far too many Slytherins had defied him on the night of the raid. He had been stripped of his leadership of the House by that Gryffindor-loving bitch, Pansy. Well, at least he could show them all he was still Draco Malfoy; he could still humiliate Potter and his hangers-on when he had Crabbe, Goyle and Bulstrode to back him up!

"Hello, Potter," Draco drawled, "back from the Colonies so soon? Got tired of the log cabin, did you?"

"Oh, can it, Draco," Harry said in a bored voice. Ron leaned back against the wall and began to whistle the theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Hermione had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from giggling.

Draco was furious; they were laughing at him. "It's about time someone reminded you three of what Wizarding life is like!" he snarled, snapping his fingers. Crabbe and Goyle moved in on Ron, while Millicent loomed over Hermione. Ginny started forward to help, then froze in her tracks.

Ron, her big, clumsy bear of a brother, came off the wall and leapt forward with the grace and precision of a hunting cat. Ginny suddenly noticed that Ron's clothes were stretched tight across a frame that was as powerfully developed as Peter Rasputin's. Crabbe and Goyle hadn't observed this fact and didn't back off. There was a flurry of blows, so fast Ginny could not follow them, before Crabbe and Goyle lay groaning on the floor.

Ron turned to Hermione to announce, "Flawless victory."

Hermione rolled her eyes, chiding Ron, "You've played that bloody awful game too much." Then she executed an amazingly balletic movement that swept Millicent's legs from under her, sending the heavyset Slytherin girl crashing down. When Millicent made to get up, Hermione whipped out her wand and aimed it between the other girl's eyes. "Go ahead," Hermione invited, "make my day." Millicent subsided.

Ron grinned at Hermione. "And you've watched too many bloody awful movies," he decided.

Draco and Ginny were both standing open mouthed. Then, as Harry half-turned to smile at the byplay between his friends, Malfoy raised his wand. Harry's superb peripheral vision, which helped make him such a good flier, caught the movement. He disarmed Draco with a snake-fast strike that numbed the Slytherin's arm from elbow to fingertip. The next thing Draco knew, he was being pinned against the wall, feeling Potter's forearm rigid as an iron bar across his throat.

"Listen, Malfoy," Harry hissed, "I've learned a lot in these last months, so it's not really safe to try this rubbish on me or my friends anymore. And I've heard all about the raid. I know you're a traitor and a coward. So, I'll be watching you, Draco, watching you like a hawk. This is your only warning, OK? Just take notice, for your own sake, scumbag. Remember, Draco, you won't see it coming." He released the blond Slytherin, who fell to his knees gasping and choking.

Ron and Hermione knew, if no one else did, that it had not been Harry who had spoken so coolly, and with such lethal intent, to Malfoy. That had been Hawk.

Ginny rejoined her Gryffindor friends and they went on to lunch, just as Snape, with Pansy on his heels, came around the corner. The Potions Master took in the situation at a glance. "There seems to have been an incident, Miss Parkinson. Round up the usual suspects, if you please."

"Ah, Professor, Malfoy and his gang are the usual suspects."

"Well, in that case, your task will be simple, will it not? Carry on."

With barely a nod to the four Gryffindors, Snape swept off. Pansy stood, staring at Harry with a peculiar expression on her face.

Harry stepped forward. "I've heard about the raid," he told her quietly, "It seems we owe you. I won't forget that." He put out a hand. Pansy took it, swallowed hard and nodded, but didn't trust herself to speak. Harry released her hand from his grip, and her eyes from his compelling gaze. "Let's go," he told his friends.

Back in the Common Room, accounts of the attack on Xavier's were examined and dissected in detail. Harry, Hermione and Ron had to explain again to their wizard friends what Sentinels were, and how such things were possible without magic.

"You know, we need to be careful," muttered Parvati. "While we've been keeping our heads inside the Wizarding world, Muggles have been coming up with some pretty powerful stuff. It wouldn't do to underestimate them."

"You're right," Harry agreed. "If worst comes to worst in our world, and Voldemort decides to attack the Muggle one, he might find he's bitten off more than he can chew."

"I dunno about that," said Ron, "I mean, I beat a Sentinel."

"Yes, but it'd take more than a ten-foot robot to beat my Ron," Hermione said loyally, "and Voldemort's nowhere near as tough as you--or as clever," she added, making Ron blush to the roots of his hair.

After that, the three friends unpacked the CD player. Hermione replaced the batteries with a power-charm, and they treated everyone to a selection of Muggle music.

Ginny had listened with wonder and amusement to her friends' accounts of their stay in America and their battles with the Hellfire Club. She had also played her part in recounting that scary night in the forest and the furious battle against the Death Eater raiding party. But she had spent rather more time scrutinizing the three newly returned students.

Each had changed. Physically, they were more developed. Ron bulged with muscle and with a raw power he seemed well able to control. Hermione, always trim, now moved with a swift poise she hadn't had before, like a bird of prey. Harry had a whetted look; his whipcord frame seemed to vibrate with a new energy barely held in check.

But there were deeper changes.

Ron seemed more confident, less willing to hide behind the nice-but-slightly-dim façade he had maintained for so many years. Almost as soon as he returned, he had taken Ginny aside to speak privately. "OK, kid," he had demanded, "the truth, now. Are you all right? About Peter, I mean."

"Oh, come on, Ron. When did I ever bother about a boyfriend?"

"Not until now, but I've read your letters, Ginny. Peter wasn't just one of your passing fancies, was he? It was more than that; I could tell."

There was no point lying to him, Ginny realised. "It started out that way, but he was so shy, and then he was so gentle and warm. He really cared for me-still does, I hope-and I found myself caring, really caring, for him. Still, we both knew it couldn't last, so, yes, I'm all right--or I will be. Thanks for asking, big brother."

Ron hugged her, and left it at that. Ginny wondered just when Ron had become so perceptive.

Hermione seemed the least changed until Ginny noticed that her once-dowdy friend was wearing make-up--just enough for everyone to see that Hermione was actually a very pretty young woman. Her attitude was different, as well. She was responding, lightly and wittily, to the mild flirtation that was a constant undercurrent in Common Room conversation, while still keeping close to Ron. Hermione seemed at ease with being seen as female, no longer considering it a handicap. Some of this self-assurance came from the fact that Ron was so obviously in love with her. From Marie's accounts of her friends, Ginny guessed that Dani and Kitty had also had a bit to do with Hermione's transformation.

Then again, Ginny thought, it didn't take going away to change someone. Her own experience with Peter here at Hogwarts had shown her that. She wouldn't go back to her old, carefree, casual relationships. She liked being cared for in a deeper way. She felt good about that; maybe she was finally growing up.

So were Neville and Lavender. Ginny had been more than a little surprised when those two were named Temporary Prefects. Neville seemed so diffident and Lavender so flighty that Ginny had wondered why they had been chosen as Gryffindor leaders. Over the past few months, though, Neville had revealed unexpected courage, imagination and determination. He had led well, with just the right mixture of caution and dash, in some really sticky situations. Even more surprising was the depth of Lavender's emerging personality. Lavender had turned out to be cool headed and practical, quite handy in a crisis. Neville and Lavender were good for and with each other.

Ginny checked her mental wanderings, forcing herself to focus on the subject that daunted her most: Harry. He had changed more than all the others. This was not the Harry she had worshipped as a hero, not the remote figure who flew past her on the trail of adventure. This wasn't the aloof figure who led Dumbledore's Army, or the one who had stood alone against dark wizards and monsters.

This was another Harry altogether. As she watched him talk with the others, she saw a slightly shy, warm, funny, sensitive person. Of course he was brave and clever and determined, but only when he had to be, it seemed. When he smiled at her, as he was doing now, so warmly yet so nervously, she felt something entirely new stir inside her.

I am in trouble now, Ginny thought. It would be easy, fatally easy, to fall hard for the boy who was watching her from across the room. Somehow, she didn't mind that thought one bit.

Hermione stood up. "I don't know about anyone else, but I'm going for tea. One thing I have been missing all these weeks is an English tea. I want ham sandwiches, cucumber sandwiches, sponge cake and scones. And I haven't had a decent cuppa in months. Come on, Ron, I dare you to tell me you don't need to stoke up that bulk of yours by now."

The group broke up. Ginny wasn't sure she wanted tea; she thought she just might want to sit and think for a bit, but then Harry called across to her, "Coming, Ginny?"

"Sorry, what?" she replied, distracted.

"Oh, I do beg your pardon," Harry said with a grin. "I'm forgetting my manners." He went over to where she was sitting and made a florid bow. "Miss Weasley, I wonder if you would do me the inestimable honour of joining me in a little afternoon tea?"

Ginny grinned at him. "Why, sugah," she said in a dreadfully exaggerated imitation of Rogue's occasional drawl, "ah thought you'd nevah ask."

She rose and dropped him a curtsey. Harry, with a comically theatrical gesture, offered her his arm, which she took in an equally overdone manner. The two of them paraded out of the Common Room in high style as their Housemates tittered. Harry and Ginny managed to get out of the portrait hole before they cracked a smile.

Harry shook his head and sighed. "It's good to be home!"

"It's good to have you home," Ginny told him. "Now, come on; you said you were taking me to tea." She smiled up into his face and gripped his arm a little tighter. They set off down the corridor happily together.

THE END

of

Xchange Students

Harry Potter and the X-Men will return in

The Labyrinth of Amagor

Coming Spring 2005

136